A free online university has grown to 126,000 students. What can traditional colleges teach?

When Shai Reshef launched a free online university called University of the People nearly 15 years ago, skepticism was high. Online education was seen as a poor substitute for studying in person, and anyway, how could something free be financially viable?

Today, the college achieved accreditation. It grew to serve 126,000 students. And it has some 37,000 volunteers. Its student body comes from all over the world, although 51% are first-generation students living in the United States. And he has worked to support students who have unique barriers to higher education, including more than 16,000 refugees.

The University of the People has found a way to continue and grow – with a basic model of charging a fee to take final assessments and offering financial aid to those who cannot even afford it. He also came up with many clever ways to cut costs, such as relying on open or low-cost educational resources rather than expensive commercial textbooks.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has changed views on online education, as to date just about every faculty and student has had online study experiences.

But some still have concerns about fully online colleges, particularly whether institutions can verify that students are doing their own work.

Should more colleges adopt the methods of this free university? If so, will they?

EdSurge connected with Reshef to ask him what he’s learned over the past 15 years, what his advice is to college leaders, and where he envisions online education.

Listen to the episode on Apple podcast, Covered, Spotify, embroiderer or wherever you get your podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, slightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: What was the hardest thing about getting this free college started?

Shai Reshef: Raising enough money and donations was – and still is – the hardest thing for us. We are sustainable. Students pay $120 per course for assessment, and that amount makes us viable. But there are many people in the world – refugees and others – who cannot even afford it. We need scholarships to enable them to study. And we’re struggling to find enough resources to do that.

At first many people said that your model sounded good but it would not be durable. Besides these fees, what else are you doing to reduce costs?

The main thing is the volunteers. I am a volunteer. Deans are volunteers. The teachers are volunteers.

And there are other elements because we are extremely efficient. We have very few degrees: business administration, computer science and health sciences in bachelor’s and bachelor’s degrees, and [in graduate degrees, we offer] an MBA, a Masters in Education and a Masters in Computer Science. These are the programs that will lead our students to find jobs, and that is why they come to us.

Most colleges can’t just get faculty to volunteer, and I’m sure many of your faculty can only do so because they have paid jobs at other colleges. What can traditional colleges use from your model?

I would divide universities into two categories: selective and non-selective. Non-selective colleges should merge to have the advantage of being big and more efficient. Otherwise, they will not survive. A university of 1,000 students that charges $50,000 a year — I doubt they can do that for long.

The most selective universities, I think many of them should partially migrate to be online. You might say to your students, “Listen, I want you to study one year tuition-free and three years on campus. Now, the on-campus experience will be reduced by one year, but the cost will also be reduced by 25%.

You’ve also said in the past that you felt like a role model for others to emulate. But I didn’t really see that. So why haven’t others moved in and done more of what you’re talking about here?

Well, to be honest, I’m surprised myself. So I don’t know the answer. I can speculate, and I think the best answer I can give is skepticism. You know, when I describe our model, people say, “No, not really. In every industry, if you have a model and someone says the same results can be achieved for a fraction of the price, the natural answer is “no way”.

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