• August 27, 2014

A College Education for All, Free and Online

A College Education for All, Free and Online 1

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

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Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

All around the world, people have been waiting for someone like Shai Reshef to come along.

Reshef is the founder and president of the University of the People, a tuition-free online institution that enrolled its first class of students in 2009.

UoPeople strives to serve the vast numbers of students who have no access to traditional higher education. Some can't afford it, or they live in countries where there are simply no good colleges to attend. Others live in rural areas, or identify with a culture, an ethnicity, or a gender that is excluded from public services.

UoPeople students pay an application fee of between $10 and $50 and must have a high-school diploma and be proficient in English. There are also small fees for grading final exams. Otherwise, it's free.

The university takes advantage of the growing body of free, open-access resources available online. Reshef made his fortune building for-profit higher-education businesses during the rise of the Internet, and he noticed a new culture of collaboration developing among young people who grew up in a wired world. So UoPeople relies heavily on peer-to-peer learning that takes place within a highly structured curriculum developed in part by volunteers. The university plans to award associate and bachelor's degrees, and it is now seeking American accreditation.

Rather than deploy the most sophisticated and expensive technology, UoPeople keeps it simple—everything happens asynchronously, in text only. As long as students can connect their laptops or mobile devices to a telecommunications network, somewhere, they can study and learn.

For most of humanity, this is the only viable way to get access to higher education. When the university polled students about why they had enrolled, the top answer was, "What other choice do I have?"

Some observers have wondered how effective such an unorthodox learning model can be. But UoPeople's two courses of study—business administration and computer science­—were selected to be practical, culturally neutral, and straightforward.

The university has also accumulated an impressive array of peers and associates. UoPeople's provost, David Harris Cohen, was previously a top administrator at Columbia University. In June, New York University announced that it would consider transfer applications from students who complete a year at UoPeople. A few weeks later, Hewlett-Packard announced that UoPeople students would be eligible for the company's online-research internship program.

To date, UoPeople has enrolled just over 1,000 students in more than 115 countries. Reshef says he believes that the very act of putting students from different cultures in close collaboration is a step toward peace. He believes the university will grow to 10,000 students in five years. At that point, he says, it will be financially sustainable.

That seems realistic. The university has received thousands of applications and more than 350,000 "likes" on Facebook.

The scale of the global population lacking access to higher education is gargantuan—Reshef puts it at 100 million people worldwide. It's outlandish to think that they'll get it through the construction of American-style colleges and universities—the most expensive model of higher education known to humankind, and getting more so every year. Low-cost, online higher-education tools are the future for most people. What remains to be seen is whether American institutions understand the opportunity and the obligation this future represents.

There are numerous American colleges and universities now sitting on multibillion-dollar endowments that grew significantly in part because of government tax breaks for charitable donations and capital gains. They have globally recognized brands that are worth billions more, names so powerful that students from the other side of the world are magnetically attracted to these institutions. They have accumulated the brightest scholars and students, many of whom loudly and publicly express their concerns about global-economic injustice.

Yet what exactly are these institutions doing to redress those injustices with the service they are built to provide­—higher education? In most cases, virtually nothing. John Sexton, the president of NYU, appears to be one of the elite higher-education leaders who most understands what's at stake: He has created a groundbreaking new NYU campus in Abu Dhabi and is looking to expand into China next. His enthusiasm for the UoPeople is no surprise. Nor is the presence of other NYU administrators in UoPeople leadership roles. Yale University has led the way in providing open-education resources, such as free, high-quality lecture videos, as have universities including Carnegie Mellon and MIT.

But those institutions are the exceptions. Harvard has made back some of the fortune it lost in the Wall Street casino, but it seems to have no inclination to use that money to educate more students. Undergraduates at the University of California at Berkeley can minor in global poverty, but Berkeley isn't using newly available online-learning tools to actually reduce global poverty by helping impoverished students earn college degrees. And while some institutions are publishing open-education resources, they aren't offering degrees to match.

Most elite American colleges are content to spend their vast resources on gilding their palaces of exclusivity. They worry that extending their reach might dilute their brand. Perhaps it might. Righteousness is easy; generosity is hard. In any event, Harvard's public-relations wizards managed to spin the university's decision to subsidize tuition for families making three times the median household income as a triumph of egalitarianism. The institution could easily use a program designed to help desperately needy students living in political, environmental, and economic turmoil to burnish Harvard's brand.

If Harvard doesn't seize the opportunity, some other university will. Reshef is the first to tell you that he didn't invent any of the tools that UoPeople employs. He's just the one who decided to build a whole university around the idea of using those tools to give students the education they need, the way they need it­—free. He won't be the last.

If colleges with the means to do so don't contribute to the cause, they will at best have betrayed their obligations and their ideals. At worst, they will find themselves curating beautiful museums of a higher-education time gone by.

Kevin Carey is policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington.

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