The University of the People: A Model for Global, Tuition-Free, Open Education

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The University of the People: A Model for Global, Tuition-Free, Open Education


This article describes a global, wholly online university that was founded to address the needs of these would-be students. The following describes the University of the People (UoPeople), its vision and purpose, and the basic unmet human right this model of international, tuition-free and open education seeks to address. Furthermore, we show how this model of higher education can be utilized by world renowned universities and elite schools with resources, such as New York University (NYU) and University of California (UC) Berkeley to source top talent from underserved communities of students. Through these fruitful partnerships, students who previously had no alternative for higher education before UoPeople opened the gates for them, may be able to further their academic pursuits by attending one of the best universities in the world.

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The University of the People: A Model for Global, Tuition-Free, Open Education


In the age of the Internet, many of the barriers that have constrained us and separated us are disappearing. Distances are dwindling, and time is shrinking as our capacity for global communication expands exponentially. We are no longer simply different people from different countries and ethnic groups, too often fighting each other. Rather, we are evolving toward a global humanity that has an unprecedented opportunity to join together to improve our future and our world. To realize our brightest vision for the future, we must strive for an educated global population.

As a basic right, higher education can transform the lives not only of individuals but eventually of the entire world’s population. However, unesco estimates that by the year 2025, there will be 98 million qualified students worldwide who will be excluded from higher education because of a shortage of university seats. This article describes a global, wholly online university that was founded to address the needs of these would-be students. In the past, developing such a university, spread across the world and serving a heterogeneous mix of students at a cost low enough to make it accessible to all qualified applicants, would have been impossible. Fortunately, such an endeavor is now feasible. The following describes the University of the People (UoPeople), its vision and purpose, and the basic unmet human right this model of international, tuition-free and open education seeks to address. Furthermore, we show how this model of higher education can be utilized by world renowned universities and elite schools with resources, such as New York University (NYU) and University of California (UC) Berkeley to source top talent from underserved communities of students. Through these fruitful partnerships, students who previously had no alternative for higher education before UoPeople opened the gates for them, may be able to further their academic pursuits by attending one of the best universities in the world.

Education: An Unfulfilled Human Right

More than anything else, education is the road to world peace. Educated people have more hope for a successful and productive future. Studies show that countries with higher levels of education tend to be more stable. Education enables people to lift themselves out of poverty and chronic hunger and gives them a greater stake in the world. The basic right to education is one that, if met, leads to bettering one’s potential earnings. Across OECD countries, 42% of those without an upper secondary qualification are not employed. Education allows for a fuller life and individual self-realization, which bring more personal peace. Education helps eradicate prejudices: generally, educated people tend to be more open to the viewpoints and belief systems of others, and more willing to embrace foreign customs and people. The challenge, then, is to make education globally accessible. Access to knowledge and information must become an essential human right, on par with access to health care.

Millions around the world desire postsecondary education and its ensuing credentials but lack the opportunity to acquire them, for a variety of reasons. For many today, a postsecondary education is simply too expensive, while others confront insufficient facilities in their region to accommodate all the willing and able students. Some are unable to leave their families to relocate to a university, and some cultures exclude certain social castes, ethnic or religious groups, or women from attending universities. These differences are often geographically or economically based. For example, according to the unesco Institute for Statistics, 70 percent of potential students in the United States attend a higher education institution, in comparison to only 6 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. There are also political reasons which prevent many qualified students from entering or re-entering higher education, as seen particularly with regard to the refugee crisis around the world, wherein millions of refugees are denied access to institutes of higher education.

Vision for an Internationally Accessible and Affordable University

University of the People is a nonprofit, tuition-free, accredited online university. Dedicated to opening access to higher education globally, UoPeople is designed to help qualified high school graduates overcome financial, geographic, social, political and personal constraints keeping them from college-level studies. The university currently offers two-year associate and four-year bachelor degree programs in business administration, computer science and health science, as well as an online master of business administration (MBA) degree.

The vision behind UoPeople was formulated at the convergence of three recent technological, cultural and societal transformations. These transformations are (1) the development and widespread adoption of the Internet and social media and their exponentially growing capacity and penetration, (2) the rapidly increasing quantity and quality of free information and software available online, and (3) the positive social dynamics of online social networking. These transformations are all highly significant, but particularly germane to the theme of this article is that open access to information, knowledge, and social interactions through digital media accessed over the Internet enabled the establishment of a university of the people. Moreover, the UoPeople model was founded on the beliefs that no one should be barred from accessing higher education due to financial reasons, and that access to higher education could promote world peace and global economic development.


President Reshef launched University of the People after twenty years of being an entrepreneur in for-profit education, and having chaired kit eLearning, the online learning partner of the University of Liverpool and the first online university outside the United States. President Reshef was witness to how powerful online learning could be, but was troubled by the the fact that earning an online degree was nothing more than wishful thinking for most people around the world, simply because of its lack of affordability. This realization was the spark that led to the founding of UoPeople.

UoPeople was established in January 2009. Admissions began in April 2009, and classes began in September 2009. The university was accredited in February 2014. Since its founding, the university has enrolled more than 3,500 students from 180 countries on six continents.

After the initial launch in 2009 and promotion in the media, hundreds of volunteers offered their help for this new kind of university. A number of them were university professors from the United States, among them emeriti faculty, but librarians, professionals, graduate students, and other academic specialists from around the world also offered their expertise.

It is noteworthy that most countries without the infrastructure or the capacity to create affordable and meaningful higher education opportunities still have sufficient Internet access to provide a gateway to programs offered by UoPeople. Thus, the Internet has in some ways served as an equalizer, enabling educational opportunity for the world’s people even as other factors divide them.

Because a major goal of UoPeople is to better students’ standard of living, it focused first on offering degree programs with the greatest promise for attractive employment. For instance, the degrees most sought both by prospective students and by their employers (excluding degrees in fields that require on-site learning or that are characterized by regional differences in content) are in business administration, computer science and health science.

Recently, the institution has gained attention among refugees around the world because of an initiative that offers 500 scholarships to refugees (particularly Syrian) to study in its online programs. It is working to bring an education to them despite their geographic displacement, lack of stability, and not having important documents usually required of most other universities.

UoPeople’s Academic Partnerships

1. New York University (NYU)

In 2010, NYU began partnering with UoPeople. The partnership was born of a mutual belief that no student, anywhere in the world should go without higher education if he or she could benefit from it and that, both as a moral and as a prudential model, society should take every step possible to identify capable students and provide them with the opportunity to learn and to demonstrate their talents. Thus, for NYU, UoPeople was both a vehicle for providing education to those for whom there was no real alternative and a means for connecting students who demonstrated academic talent with academic possibilities previously unimaginable for them.

The strong commitment of John Sexton, then NYU‘s President, was further evident in his work to create the UoPeople President’s Council. The Council includes distinguished presidents and others from universities in the U.S. and abroad, such as Oxford Vice-Chancellor Emeritus Sir Colin Lucas, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, Academy of Paris Rector Emerita Mrs. Michèle Gendreau-Massaloux, Nobel Laureate Torsten N. Wiesel, and u.s. Former Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, among others.

In addition, then President Sexton signed an agreement in 2011 that allows top performing UoPeople students to apply to attend NYU after completing one year of study at UoPeople. Those who are admitted to NYU Abu Dhabi are eligible to generous financial aid. Further, graduates of UoPeople’s bachelor’s programs are eligible to apply to NYU for graduate study.  Through this arrangement, NYU reaches students whom it would not otherwise attract. UoPeople, by serving as a funnel for NYU, is able to provide yet an additional way for its top students to further broaden their horizons.

2. University of California, Berkeley

UoPeople recently announced a milestone partnership with UC Berkeley, whereby UoPeople’s top associate’s degree graduates will be considered for admission as transfer students into Berkeley’s bachelor’s degree programs. This arrangement is patterned after Berkeley’s similar agreements with local California community colleges. This arrangement serves as a major recognition of the value of a UoPeople degree. It means that the most accomplished, especially California-based UoPeople students, may be able to further their dreams by attending yet another of the world’s great universities.

3. Research Collaborations

UoPeople is serving as the study site for researchers at the NYU Stern School who are piloting an adaptive personalized supplemental learning tool. Now in its second stage of development, the learning tool follows every student in every UoPeople class and monitors performance on graded assignments and quizzes and exams. Areas for review and/or supplemental instruction are identified and guidance on additional readings, problem sets, etc., are provided to the individual student based on his/her specific error profile. The tool automatically directs the student to the resource that is appropriate to his/her needs. Consistent with UoPeople’s commitment to open educational resources and zero-cost texts and instructional materials, only open source materials are identified by the tool.

UoPeople is also partnered with Yale Law School’s Information Society Project (ISP) for research. Yale isp decided to enter into this agreement because of their belief in the importance of the free flow of information and the power of social media – and UoPeople is a great example of it. This resulted in a book that is soon to be published.

4.Other Partnerships:

Over these past seven years, UoPeople has formed partnerships with, among others, Microsoft, for scholarships and access to its certificate programs, mentoring, internships, and employment opportunities; and Hewlett-Packard, for general support, scholarships for women, and internships. Support has also been provided by The Gates Foundation, Fondation Hoffmann, Carnegie Corporation, Hewlett Foundation, and companies such as HP, Google, Western Union, Pfizer, Estee Lauder and many more.


Since the language of instruction at UoPeople is English, sufficient proficiency in English is a prerequisite to admission. Another prerequisite is successful completion of high school, clearly documented with a valid high school diploma. Regrettably, this means that not everyone is able to benefit from its programs.

Those who attend UoPeople comprise a diverse student body. They range in age from eighteen to seventy-two years of age. With 35 percent female and 65 percent male, our students hail from all over the world (United States, 35 percent; Africa 24 percent, East Asia, 14 percent; and the rest from Europe, Oceania, and Central and South America) and work in a broad array of occupations. The United States, Nigeria, Mexico, Canada, Haiti, Kenya, South Africa and Brazil are among the most heavily represented countries, some of which have high rates of illiteracy and low rates of higher education.

Instruction in a Virtual Classroom

Instruction at UoPeople is facilitated by two converging trends. First, open access to knowledge is becoming more commonplace. The extent to which information and knowledge are being offered without cost online is growing exponentially; this represents a new view of knowledge as something to be shared and not necessarily protected under intellectual property laws and then monetized. Some manifestations of this open-access movement can be seen in open-source technology, open educational resources, the creative commons movement, and the proliferation of MOOC‘s (massive open online courses). With the advent of so much freely-available information, anyone with access to the Internet can study whatever he or she chooses, often at no charge. However, these offerings are developed piecemeal and do not represent coherent and cohesive curricula. In addition, most people need more structure and guidance to gain a sound—not to mention a formally recognized—education; open access is necessary but not sufficient.

Second, online social networking by means of social media is transforming how people interact with one another, including how they exchange information. Particularly compelling in social networking behavior, especially in online communities, is people’s willingness to compose thoughtful answers to questions posed on forums, wikis, and in other venues by complete strangers. The new culture emerging in online social networks, study communities, and other forms of online interaction has direct relevance for the future of instruction and learning.

In spite of these gains, an educated world still needs processes for organizing the transmission of knowledge, for instilling analytic and communication skills, and, most importantly, for certifying educational achievement. This need to institutionalize learning, including the requisite diploma, is one of the drivers behind the UoPeople.

While things may be done differently at UoPeople when compared to other academic institutions, the learning outcomes and quality are on par with those of other accredited universities.

Students are required to successfully complete twenty courses in order to earn an associate’s degree and forty courses to receive a bachelor’s degree. Students are grouped into classes of twenty-to-thirty. In this virtual classroom, students study in week-long cycles. Each week, students log into the classroom and find the lecture, reading assignment, homework assignment, and discussion question for that week. Each term is 9 weeks, and culminates in an end-of-course exam.

Peer-to-Peer Learning & UoPeople’s Pedagogy

The weekly discussion question is at the core of UoPeople’s courses. Students must address the weekly question through online discussion with their classmates. Students are guided to raise issues and present ideas on the subject, as well as reply to the contributions of their classmates. This method helps foster active engagement, deepening involvement and self-discipline.

If a student has a question that cannot be answered by a classmate or wants to research more deeply a topic not included in the class discussion, he or she can approach the course instructor, who is there to read all the material, supervise the discussion, and get involved if needed. By the end of each week, after the discussion is exhausted, students turn in their homework assignment, take a self-assessment quiz, and continue on to the next week of their studies. At the end of each course, students take an exam and get a final grade based on the exam grade as well as on their peers’ assessment of their contribution to the class discussion and of their homework assignments.

As indicated by the logistics and requirements just outlined, peer-to-peer learning and peer-to-peer assessment play a key role in the pedagogy of UoPeople. The university expects its students to take the initiative, studying diligently on their own and sharing their thoughts online. In turn, the university has an obligation to provide a learning environment that stimulates and motivates its students. Though meeting this obligation is important for every university, it is particularly important for an online institution, for students are likely to drop out if they are dissatisfied. Recognizing this reality, we have tried to structure the pedagogical model to achieve an interesting and motivating learning environment, and we measure student satisfaction on an ongoing basis. According to anonymous responses on individual end-of-course surveys, more than 95 percent of UoPeople students would recommend the program to their peers and cite UoPeople as a great place to study.

Curricular Structure

Degree programs at University of the People reflect the institution’s deep commitment to the structure and rigor of a traditional liberal arts education. Individual courses are the building blocks of each degree program. Course requirements are structured to ensure that student study encompasses a broad range of topics and approaches, with an appropriate balance maintained among the three curricular components that comprise a liberal arts education.

General Education requirements expose students to the breadth of human knowledge and to the methods employed for studying it. Students focus on developing critical thinking, analysis, and communication skills; acquiring quantitative and scientific literacy; and understanding the basic tenets of civic engagement, citizenship, and the ethical dimensions of behavior.

Majors permit intensive study of a single discipline or cross-cutting area of knowledge and complement the breadth of the General Education component, providing a thorough grounding in a field’s historical context and the particularized nature of its scholarship.

Electives enable students to select coursework tailored to personal interests and offer the opportunity to acquire breadth beyond that specified in General Education requirements, select introductory courses in other majors, and take additional courses in a student’s major that may not be required for the degree.

Organizational Structure

Administrative Organization

UoPeople is a virtual organization with all of the operational structures normally found in a brick-and-mortar entity. The key management structures include a Board of Trustees; the Office of the President responsible for board relations, development, marketing/public relations, legal, and human resources; the Office of the Provost that handles the academic operations (instruction, enrollment management, student affairs, institutional research; and the Office of Vice President for Strategic Planning that oversees planning, finance, and IT. Through its membership in the Library and Information Resource Network (LIRN), UoPeople provides students with access to the electronic data bases necessary to offer quality programming.

As with any institution, articulating organizational boundaries is key. This is especially critical in an organization that operates entirely online and that has UoPeople’s personnel model (described elsewhere). To minimize duplication and ensure coverage, units within the organization are clearly differentiated with respect to authority, responsibilities, and accountability. Communications are structured around a set of regularly-scheduled and as-needed meetings that are done via phone or online collaborative meeting tools.

Curricular Governance

UoPeople, curricular governance is a shared responsibility. Who handles which aspect varies as a function of the specific activity.

The Deans Committee is responsible for deciding when UoPeople should add new majors at the undergraduate level, or new specialties in existing graduate degree programs. It is also responsible for recommending to the President when he should take proposals to add new degree levels or new types of degrees to the Board of Trustees.

Each Academic Division has an advisory board composed of leading academic and, as relevant, practitioners in the field. Advisory Boards are responsible for recommending on new programs and, once a new program has been authorized, for approving the program goals and curricular organization. It approves the choice and sequencing of courses, and sets the number of credits required for the program. It also approves the course learning outcomes.

Once the array of courses required for the program has been determined by the Advisory Board, the courses are then developed by a cadre of qualified Subject Matter Expert/Course Developers (SME/CDS). The SME/CDS are selected for their knowledge of the field and for their ability to design courses appropriate for the online learning environment.

The courses are taught by Course Instructors (CIs) in sections kept purposely small to create intimate learning communities and to support the peer learning and assessment approach that is an important component of the institution’s instructional model. Course Instructors are selected for their knowledge of the specific content area. Course Instructors contribute to ongoing enhancement of courses by expanding content and flagging errors for correction.

Model for Free and Open Education

UoPeople places a high priority on remaining financially accessible, charging only small administrative fees and no tuition. Students pay an application processing fee of $60. For each course they take, the university expects students to pay a $100 per examination fee; thus a full BA degree will cost $4,000. For those who cannot afford even this amount, and in line with the university’s mission to allow no student to be left behind due to financial constraints, the university offers a variety of scholarships. With economies of scale, these administrative fees are projected to sustain the operating budget of the university when the student enrollment reaches approximately 5,000, which is expected to happen during the 2017 academic year. Also necessary for this model to succeed are rigorous cost-containment measures, the use of open-source technology and open-access material, and the volunteer staffing of both academic and administrative areas of the university.


Indeed, perhaps the most significant source of support for UoPeople comes from the enormous number of volunteers (over 5,000) who generously donate their time and expertise to the university. For instance, most of the university’s leadership, including the President, Provost and Deans, participate on a volunteer basis; these individuals come from leading institutions such as New York University, Columbia University, and others and provide UoPeople with a world-class academic backbone. Some volunteers provide external pro bono services (e.g., legal advice), some help with administration, and some are involved with course development, creating libraries and running departments. The university courses are written by volunteers. These are experts in the relevant subjects who write the courses, review other volunteers’ work, and supervise and improve the courses once they are being taught. Furthermore, UoPeople uses open educational resources. That is, all of its course material is free for anyone to use, and any content created by the course developers and then used by instructors is made freely available online.

The university’s army of volunteers comes from all ranks of universities and offers its services and expertise to help our students, functioning as instructors and carrying out the day-to-day teaching activity. Those who teach do receive a token honorarium, which is a way for the institution to show respect for their work and to assure their commitment. Many of these volunteers interact with and help students directly, and we are still learning how to most efficiently make use of the incredible resources they provide. While the university relies heavily on volunteers, and numerous volunteers are involved in every aspect of its activities, at the same time it is important to note that the university is not wholly dependent on them. In the short time the university has been in existence, a main lesson learned has been that volunteers are useful, and very helpful in the day-to-day activities of the university, and yet a system has to be in place so that for the various categories of volunteers there are paid backups to ensure its structural stability and continuity.

Implementation Challenges

Creating and implementing an experimental, online university that is affordable and accessible to people around the globe is not without its challenges. One challenge, as just noted, is managing and using efficiently an army of volunteers. A second challenge is getting the word out to our target audience of students. Although the university has had publicity in prominent media outlets such as the New York Times and through ted Talks, many potential students are not consumers of this kind of media. People who stand to benefit from tuition-free education need to know about UoPeople, and yet the people who may need UoPeople the most may have a hard time finding out about it. As an independent nonprofit institution that intends to remain tuition-free, UoPeople must operate on a very lean budget. Thus, without a wealth of funds for marketing, the university is largely dependent on word-of-mouth and media coverage. Though its mission is to ensure that no one is left behind for financial reasons, it needs help both making sure that students can find the institution in the first place and being able to assist them with financial aid, if necessary, once they do. An ongoing challenge, then, is making sure UoPeople is visible and accessible, when people who need it are researching their options and, when they find it, ensuring that there are scholarships to support them if they attend.

A third challenge to implementing this model is facilitating diversity in admissions. For instance, UoPeople often has applicants who want to study at the university, who stand to gain the most from tuition-free higher education, and who fit our mission, but who, for various reasons, do not have the necessary documentation (e.g., refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people).

UoPeople & Refugees

In 2015, UoPeople launched its Emergency Refugee Assistance Program, effectively offering 500 refugees around the world (predominantly Syrian) scholarships. Building on UoPeople’s previous experience with providing refugee assistance programs, UoPeople is able to admit students to this program to pursue a bachelor’s degree, regardless of whether the students remain in their host countries, relocate again, or return home.

To help meet this challenge, UoPeople has been working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to establish special policies that make the admission process for refugees as easy as possible in cases where official transcripts and documents cannot be obtained. This policy was approved by the university’s accrediting agency, and has not surprisingly resulted in large numbers of refugee students applying (and enrolling) at UoPeople.

Thus, UoPeople is attempting to tackle one of its biggest challenges, that of reaching out to the least upwardly mobile people, refugees and asylum seekers. Reaching out to this population is an initiative most in line with the institution’s mission. It is hoped that this model of collaboration with the un Refugee Agency can be replicated wherever there are refugees and can be scaled up to serve millions of refugees around the world, providing them with access to higher education.

A fourth challenge faced in implementing this model is that some of the students UoPeople seeks to help educate live in areas with unstable electricity or broadband access. Although one could argue that the spread of technology will ultimately bring education and academic studies to every corner of the world (e.g., there are already 1 billion smart phones in emerging markets), the stability of the broadband that is available limits the educational benefits of technology. To help mitigate this situation, we have sought to design courses that use the technology that is available to students, not the broadband one might wish they had. Such efforts have helped increase the outreach to more than 180 countries across the world. Nonetheless, we recognize that conditions for online education around the world remain less than ideal; some students get by through accessing classes as they move around, looking for free wireless Internet; other students, who do not even have running water or electricity in their homes, must go to great effort to complete their classwork by studying from Internet cafés. It is hoped that, as more people become educated and inspire the desire for education in others, they will advocate for change, and conditions will continue to improve.


In presenting the case of the UoPeople this article has summarized the vision, history, and instructional model for a tuition-free and open university, including its potential for educating people around the world and the challenges that implementing such a model entails. This model aligns with a growing trend in higher education. According to a 2015 Sloan Consortium survey, 62.4 percent of the colleges surveyed in 2012 offered fully online degree programs, compared with just 32.5 percent in 2002. In addition, many respected online universities today are offering accredited degrees to students. Already in 2009, a meta-analysis study released by the u.s. Department of Education reported that online learning has some advantages over face-to-face instruction The study found that students who gained all or part of their instruction online performed better, on average, than those who took the same courses through face-to-face instruction only. Indeed, in this digital era, hardly any university can afford to not offer at least some courses online.

The world’s educational system is ill-equipped to meet the needs of millions of prospective, capable students. Online education now offers an unprecedented opportunity to rectify this lacuna by eliminating the physical constraints of the campus or classroom and reaching out globally to enable access to education for all.

The enormous potential of online education lies in reaching the large numbers of individuals who in the past would have been denied their basic right to an education. UoPeople students may be experiencing firsthand the change this university model is bringing to the world. With a few educated students, these students and their families benefit; with more educated students, their environments and communities benefit; and with many more educated students, the whole world benefits.


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