There's a lot of handwringing about the cost of higher education in this country. Well, one entrepreneur has come up with a proposal to bring that cost down to a manageable number: zero. University of the People is free — it's 100 percent online. Can this school survive?
Judy Kakazu is a paramedic outside Honolulu. She's a busy single mom, who wants to enhance her computer skills so she can work from home one day and spend more time with her children. Right now she can't afford to go to a traditional university.
"I'm in a situation where tuition would have been a problem at this point," she says.
She needs the flexibility that online learning would offer her. She heard about the University of the People — how else? — online.
Higher Education Meets Social Networking
The University of the People is only in its second semester. It's the bright idea of Shai Reshef, an Israeli entrepreneur who's been noodling with educational software for some time. He's the chairman of Cramster.com, a site that helps students create study groups, so they can work together online. His goal with the University of the People, Reshef says, was to design a school with minimal overhead.
"We take whatever is there, and do not reinvent the wheel," Reshef says. "So online learning was there. Social networking, which we use as a main component of our model, was there."
Reshef spoke to NPR from his base in Tel Aviv, using online conferencing software. But most of Reshef's students don't have the high-speed connections needed for sophisticated online communications.
Coursework is built from simple materials — mostly text. The school does have paid instructors but Reshef says he relies heavily on social networking so students can help each other. The paradigm, he says, is peer-to-peer learning, with instructors available to help whenever needed.
Kakazu says this works well for her; she's used the online forums and messaging systems to work with other students. So while the school does not create a way for students to meet in person, in some ways they rely on each other more heavily than at many traditional universities.
Paying The Bills
Right now, Reshef is funding the school with his own capital. The only funds he collects are an application and final exam fees, which are based on what a student can afford. He's looking for outside donors to raise another $6 million, and he might have to charge more if support doesn't arrive at some point. Reshef has attracted about 380 students from 81 countries. He says he needs to operate on a larger scale to survive.
"In order for us to be sustainable with this amount of money, we need 15,000 students," Reshef says. In other words, minimal fees from that many students could keep the school afloat.
Giving Students What They Want
But attracting that kind of enrollment won't be easy. The University of the People can't offer the one thing most students want most: a degree.
The university is not accredited. Reshef says he plans to seek accreditation, but won't say where he hopes to get that recognition. This could be a huge challenge: There is no worldwide accrediting body. Judith Eaton, of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation in Washington, D.C., says schools like this face a lot of scrutiny — and for good reason.
"We still have a big problem out there with questionable providers and outright degree mills," Eaton says. "You can go to your computer and up pops 'buy a doctorate for $2,000 by noon today.'"
That's true — NPR checked.
Eaton says there's no reason why a completely online university should have trouble getting accredited. But it will take many years. "Accreditors" will want to explore in detail what kind of services the school is providing. Is there enough faculty time for students? Are there counseling services available when students need help?
A Degree Isn't Always The End Game
But for some students at the University of the People, the degree isn't that important. Deema Sultan, 27, lives in Aleppo, Syria, where she helps her family run a textile business. She's grateful for any help she can get in developing her English and business skills.
"I want to read about business and understand how business can be expanded and be grown, and how I can reflect this in my family's business and my own business in the future," Sultan says.
Some students say this is the only option they have right now to get ahead, or just to learn something new. So, success for the University of the People might depend on your definition of success.