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By Darren Johnson
Campus News

Free college? It’s happening, and not the way you think.

While the politicos have been bandying about the idea of eliminating tuition costs at community colleges, mostly through government subsidies, a new movement is brewing.

Pasadena-based, non-profit University of the People (UoPeople) is a low-bandwidth, wholly online effort funded by corporate and other private donations and staffed by real, tenured professors from established brick-and-mortar universities. Many volunteer their time and efforts, and some receive small stipends. This helps UoPeople keep costs low.

President Shai Reshef
President Shai Reshef

“Instructors come from all ranks in their universities,” said President Shai Reshef in an interview. “Our leadership is all volunteer. The overwhelming number of people running the college are volunteer. … We run a very lean operation.”

Technically, UoPeople is not free. It operates on the same three-credit system as most American colleges, but with online modules. In order to complete each course, a student is asked to pay $100 for a test administration fee. That said, students may request a waiver of the fee, and it’s usually granted. If one were to not request the waiver, the total cost of an associate’s degree would still only be $2000; a bachelor’s $4000 and an MBA $2400 (the new graduate program is priced at $200 per course and consists of 12 courses). Because of the liberal access to scholarships, UoPeople bills itself as virtually free; and this is fair to say. Recently, a large number of Syrian refugees were given scholarships, for example.

“It is our mission to make sure all of our students have scholarships,” Reshef said.

The college does not require students to have broadband, because they come from all over the world and much of the world only has dialup access, still. If an instructor is using a video or other large file, UoPeople will make sure students get a CD.

UoPeople only started a few years ago and so far has programs in Computer Science and Business Administration. “We picked degrees that we believe could help students find jobs,” Reshef said. “We’re now working on providing Health Science.”

Yes, the initial reaction may be to scoff at this new college, but this effort is doing everything right: They have firmed up articulation agreements with two great schools, UC Berkeley and NYU; they have gotten 4000 applications from volunteers who currently have day jobs at traditional universities; they have a high-powered president’s council chaired by NYU President Emeritus John Sexton that includes Oxford Vice-Chancellor Emeritus Sir Colin Lucas, U.S. Former Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Nobel Laureate Torsten N. Wiesel, among others; and have gotten major donations from companies like HP and Microsoft.

The college’s accreditation is still in its early stages. So far, it just has national accreditation with the Distance Education Accrediting Commission. While this is a legitimate accrediting body, by federal standards, most brick and mortar colleges have what’s known as “regional accreditation,” which is much more costly for a college to attain. Credits from a regionally accredited college can transfer, while those from a college like UoPeople usually don’t. So a degree from UoPeople, at this point in time, would be a standalone credential on your resume, not one that can be used to transfer to a traditional institution or apply to a traditional graduate school.

Personally, as I already have a regionally accredited graduate degree, I’d strongly consider joining their MBA program, as: the coursework is legitimate; the credential may allow me some new job opportunities; as a business owner, I am interested in improving my business skills; the online component is convenient; and the college has a worthy mission and seems to be going places. Perhaps someday soon this college will have more credentials and then the degree will carry even more weight. At the very least, I’d pick up a few new skills at a reasonable price.

President Reshef said that UoPeople’s model is not meant to be competitive with traditional colleges: “Students come to us from 180 countries. Many of these students have no other educational alternative. Even in the US, there are those who can’t get into traditional universities because they’re undocumented and refugees or they’ve had student loan difficulties. … The professors who volunteer for us understand that this is a must; we open the gates for these types of students.”

Reshef sees the bigger picture: A lot of countries would like to provide higher education for their populations, but there is no infrastructure in place to do so. The UoPeople business model is relatively shoestring and easy to implement: “There are 100 million students worldwide who can’t go to a traditional college – we are here to serve these people. We are not a threat [to traditional universities]. There is room for everyone and a big need out there.

“We are telling developing countries that they can replicate what we do, and they can give quality education to all of the people in their countries. We will show you the model.”