Author: Susan D’Agostino
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When the Taliban banned women from pursuing higher education, they did not simultaneously extinguish half their citizens’ educational ambitions. That’s why Saleema, a young Afghan woman studying at University of the People, now presents as Madison from California in her online Principles of Business Management course. (All details except the student’s gender and institution have been changed to protect her identity.)
Saleema is one of more than 126,000 students, including nearly 17,000 refugees, studying at this tuition-free, nonprofit online university with an all-volunteer faculty. The students hail from the United States, Kenya, Nigeria, Syria and more than 200 other countries. Most are down on their luck due to geographic, economic or political circumstances—or all of the above. Some, for example, are former wards of the state or undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Others have fled wars in Syria or Ukraine. Still others are climate refugees in search of land that supports human life. Half are nonwhite, and most (60 percent) are the first in their families to attend college. Nearly a third (30 percent) of the faculty is Black, according to the institution.
“There are 100 million students worldwide without available seats in existing universities,” Shai Reshef, president of University of the People, said, adding that he hopes to offer a model that others might emulate. “I really hope that I am not the one to serve them all.” Nonetheless, he has promised the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that UoPeople—as the institution calls itself—will educate 25,000 refugees by 2030, a goal Reshef expects to accomplish early.
But making tangible progress in delivering higher education to qualified learners facing some of the world’s most challenging geographic, financial or societal problems is a nontrivial proposition. Though UoPeople appears to be the first to attempt to do so on such a breathtaking scale, it has struggled to establish itself as a peer of other large, accredited online institutions such as Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University.
That may change—or not—depending on the outcome of UoPeople’s bid for accreditation from the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), whose decision is expected this month. The university has been accredited since 2013 by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, which has been ahead of other accreditors in recognizing and supporting more-experimental institutions. UoPeople has sought accreditation from WSCUC because it is one of the seven regionally focused accreditors, which have traditionally been seen as the gold standard in higher education. (Note: This article has been updated to note that UofPeople is already accredited.)
In its quest for WSCUC accreditation, the institution has many noteworthy individuals championing and supporting its efforts, including executive leaders at venerable universities such as Oxford and Columbia and esteemed philanthropic organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Yet UoPeople’s existence raises thorny, unresolved higher ed questions concerning innovations in course delivery, faculty pay and reaching learners on the extreme margins. And should it go away, scores of students in need have no safety net.
“For 100 million students, we are the alternative with no other alternative,” Reshef said.
Akram (not his real name) grew up in Aleppo, Syria, Reshef said, recounting a story of a UoPeople student. His father was a doctor who worked at the local hospital, but it was bombed in 2015. Afterward, his father treated patients in his home. But one day father and son heard screams from the neighbors, so they ran out to help. As his father ran, he was struck and killed by a bomb in front of Akram’s eyes. The son was so traumatized that he ran away and hid in Damascus for several years.
There, he met a professor from an Ivy League institution who advised him to apply to his institution. Akram followed through, was accepted and was offered a $20,000 scholarship. But that fell far short of the total cost of tuition, room, board and fees, to say nothing of travel expenses, all of which made attendance impossible. Instead, he found and enrolled at the University of the People, which offered him a full scholarship to pay for the (minimal) course assessment fees at this otherwise tuition-free university.
“There is tension,” Reshef said of his institution’s ability to provide only a bare-bones version of higher education, which includes coursework but forgoes other college “must-haves” such as mental health services, sports teams or the extensive elective course options that many institutions offer. “How can we give our students more without shutting our doors? It is a challenge … Should we do better? Yes, to the point that we do not sacrifice our mission. It’s a delicate balance.”
As might befit an institution named for those without special power or privileges, UoPeople has flouted other unwritten higher ed rules to keep its doors open.
Colleges generally pay their faculty members, but Reshef bypassed that idea when he conceived of UoPeople. To this end, all UoPeople faculty members are unpaid volunteers. (Reshef also volunteers in his capacity as president.) One might guess this presents an administrative challenge. But 1,200 instructors are actively teaching at the institution, and more than 35,000 have expressed an interest, including many retired professors and new Ph.D.s seeking teaching experience.
“If we get to the point where we don’t find enough volunteers, we may have to limit our growth,” Reshef said. “Even more so, if we don’t have the right quality of instructors, we will stop our growth.”
Colleges also generally have campuses, but Reshef saw this as another area in which to economize. With no buildings or grounds, the institution’s financial model is much leaner than those with facilities.
Colleges also generally charge students for tuition, course materials and enrollment fees. All these are free at UoPeople. Students are charged a $60 application fee and a $120 assessment fee at the end of each course. This means that the total approximate cost of a bachelor’s degree is $4,860, and scholarships are available for those who cannot afford those rates. Two-thirds of the institution’s revenues hail from student fees, and the rest comes from donations, Reshef said. Last year’s revenue was $20 million, according to Reshef.
Despite these constraints, UoPeople’s enrollment has swelled from over 44,000 students in 2021 to more than 126,000 students in 2023—a 186 percent increase over a two-year period.
Higher ed is not critical enough about questioning assumptions regarding what constitutes effective education, according to Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University. In the ’00s, LeBlanc oversaw a successful transformation from his regional university with fewer than 2,000 students to what it is today—the nation’s largest online provider, with more than 175,000 students. But that transformation, which emerged from a traditional brick-and-mortar college, is different from UoPeople’s fully-online-from-the-start approach.
“Innovation in higher education is always complicated because we are a highly regulated industry, so ‘breaking rules’ is a bit more complicated than it is in largely unregulated industries,” LeBlanc said, adding that he’s a fan of Reshef’s efforts. “I’ve long argued that accreditors need to create more ‘safe spaces’ for innovation, and I think they are trying to do so. [The New England Commission of Higher Education] is getting more comfortable with pilots, for examples.”
Accreditors often seek answers to questions such as: How does a college understand if students are learning? If a college plans to grow, will it be able to serve its current students in the process? How does the institution manage scale? How does it evaluate faculty? What about curriculum development? In the case of University of the People, the accreditation team seeks to answer all these questions and more, including whether all that is essential to student success can be accomplished with an unpaid adjunct model, according to Jamienne Studley, president of the Western accreditor.
“Creativity in a large-scale model is unusual,” Studley said. “It presents different challenges and questions. But the ability to apply broad standards to very different arrangements is central to higher education accreditation and the way we do higher education in this country.”
Emily (not her real name) is an American who is saddled with student loan debt totaling six figures from associate and bachelor’s degrees at other institutions, according to Dan Kalmanson, vice president for public affairs at UoPeople. She both struggled to pay her loans and felt limited in her ability to advance her career without further education. She was drawn to UoPeople because of its affordability and prospects for career advancement. Now, she is finishing her last course toward an M.B.A. at the institution, which she credits with her ability to receive two promotions in her field. The career advancement has better positioned her to repay her earlier loans.
“The best innovators get really focused on the learner and then ask, ‘What does this student need that the incumbent system does not offer?’ and ‘Can I find a better way to serve them?’” LeBlanc said.
After UoPeople’s first seeking-accreditation visit in 2021, WSCUC commended the institution for “embracing innovative concepts in the use of technology, community, and infrastructure.” It also recognized the university’s strengths in implementing an effective advising program as students progressed through degree programs and developing a two-step admission process that bypasses traditional college admission requirements in favor of allowing students to demonstrate their capacity for college-level work. At the same time, the accreditation board asked UoPeople to respond to issues concerning four of its accreditation standards, including “creating an organization committed to quality assurance, institutional learning, and improvement.”
Many, if not all, of the commendations are supported by technology. For example, those with a high school diploma who pass two of the university’s courses earn status as degree-seeking students. This reduces a need for an admission team that might otherwise, for example, spend inordinate amounts of time reviewing applications and communicating with prospective students.
“We use bots in serving our students,” Reshef said, adding that this frees human professors to do work that is better suited to human minds. “Instructors don’t need to answer questions like ‘can I submit my homework late?’ 10,000 times. Bots can answer this in two seconds.” Instructors moderate class discussions and answer questions about course content, but they do not develop the course material. The courses are designed in-house by the university’s academic team in collaboration with the provost, deans, department chairs, faculty members, course developers and, if necessary, outside subject area experts, according to Kalmanson.
Jonathan Becker, executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs and director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College, is in conversation with UoPeople to identify potential areas of cooperation. (Disclosure: The author is a Bard alumna.) No doubt the university is innovating to reach populations that may not otherwise be reached, Becker said. But whether it bridges the divide between access and quality remains an open question.
“If I felt that they had solved this, we would be working with them already,” Becker said, adding that he admires Reshef’s work. “If I felt that they couldn’t do it, we would not be talking to them. It’s a certain degree of both admiration and concern about whether students are learning in a manner consistent with our expectations. But we’re looking at it with hope.”
Such betwixt-and-between sentiment appears to be at the heart of conversations concerning the University of the People. Before moving forward with confidence, Becker said that Bard would need answers to questions concerning, for example, the institution’s pedagogical model, including its extensive reliance on peer-to-peer evaluation.
At the same time, Bard sees signs of quality, including a president’s council that includes distinguished leaders such Haifa Jamal Al-Lail (president of Effat University), Craig Calhoun (president of the London School of Economics and Political Science), Nicholas Dirks (former chancellor of UC Berkeley), Mamokgethi Phakeng (vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town), George Rupp (president emeritus of Columbia University) and Torsten N. Wiesel (Nobel laureate at Rockefeller University), among others.
“They’re evolving,” Becker said of UoPeople’s efforts to innovate in an effort to reach learners around the world who are not now being served. “I think there are pathways to success.”
Serving the World—or Trying To
When Russia launched its war in Ukraine, University of the People announced that all Ukrainians whose colleges had closed could take its courses at no charge. Refugees need access to higher ed to remain contributing members of society, Reshef said.
“Many institutions of higher education can claim with credibility that they are innovating,” said Mike Magee, president of Minerva University. “But very, very few higher education institutions have actually asked … ‘What would we build if we could build it from scratch?’”
When Minerva founders asked that question when their university was established in 2012, they conceived of an “Ivy League alternative” in which seven world cities serve as both classrooms and campus. Students rotate through cities during their undergraduate years, an experience that offers multiple cultural immersions paired with synchronous online courses and experiential, project-based learning. Minerva’s bid for accreditation, which was approved by WSCUC, succeeded in 2021, which leaves Magee hopeful that accreditors can accommodate breakout models.
When UoPeople’s enrollment numbers were smaller, it may have been viewed as a curiosity. But its work to innovate on such an enormous scale, its surging student population and its bid for accreditation make it an institution to watch, according to numerous higher ed leaders with whom Inside Higher Ed spoke.
“We look at the mission of the institution and all of the capacities and like to think that we can apply it to institutions as different as University of the People, Minerva, Reach and College Unbound,” Studley said, referring to other innovative colleges, though none approach the scale of University of the People.
On the global refugee front, for example, University of the People emerges as a leader. Of the world’s 82 million refugees, only a fraction—5 percent—of eligible refugee learners pursued higher education in 2021, according to the UNHCR. (The comparative figures for primary and secondary education are 68 percent and 43 percent, respectively, the commission reports.) This marked an improvement from 3 percent in 2020 but falls far short of UNHCR’s target of 15 percent by 2030.
“We have more refugees than any university in the world,” Reshef said of his institution’s nearly 17,000 refugee students—a population that surpasses the enrollment at many universities. “We have more refugees than all the universities in the world combined.”
Today, more students of color, more low-income students, more women and more students with physical or mental health concerns seek higher education than in earlier decades. University models that were designed hundreds of years ago may not fit them all, according to Rachel Fishman, acting director of the educational policy program at the think tank New America. Some students need lower costs. Others need easier or more flexible access.
“The apparatus of higher education is set up in certain ways and is financed in certain ways, and it’s really hard to get those systems to change,” Fishman said.
Accreditation review exists to ensure that new entrants achieve critical, agreed-upon outcomes, according to Studley. An institution can have up to five years in candidacy, and while some may earn accreditation on their first visit, others may require multiple visits during that period.
UoPeople’s first accreditation visit was in 2021, after which it was granted candidacy for accreditation. The board visited for the second time in the fall of 2022 and met last month. A decision of that review is expected this month. The accrediting board could approve the request, require a third seeking-accreditation visit or end its candidacy.
“When the institution is ready, they can be approved,” Studley said.
In the meantime, UoPeople’s current liminal existence presses college leaders and accreditors alike to consider how innovators challenge higher ed assumptions about effective education.
“Whatever rhetoric institutions have about being responsible citizens, when it comes time to step forward to help refugee populations, for example, they tend not to do so in the degree to which I would have hoped,” Becker said.
And if nothing else, institutions might heed the words of students who indicate that UoPeople is their main or only option.
“Why do we have hearts if we aren’t permitted to dream?” Tahmina, a 21-year-old Afghan woman who wanted to be identified only by her first name, wrote to Inside Higher Ed about her experience “burying her ambitions while still living” under Taliban rule and studying computer engineering at the University of the People.
“Why do we have souls if we aren’t permitted to feel anything? Why do we have minds if we can’t even go to school? Even if it means losing my life, I will escape this prison of gloom and pain … But one star is enough to light your life, so I will stand firm like a shining mountain in the night.”