University of the People gains accreditation

Four years ago, Israeli entrepeneur Shai Reshef made plans to start the first ever global, tuition-free online university. Skeptics questioned the logistics, and many wondered if it would work. The University of  the People recently announced it had received accreditation. The announcement from the tuition-free four year-old online university came just in time for its first graduates.

“This is very exciting, especially for the students who will graduate in April, with a degree from an accredited institution,” said Shai Reshef, the Israeli entrepreneur who invested millions of dollars to create the nonprofit university. “This has been the big question for anyone who thought about enrolling. We have 1.2 million supporters on Facebook, I think second only to Harvard, and every day, there is discussion about when we will be accredited.”

With the accreditation from national accrediting group Distance Education and Training Council, the university will be able to expand. Mr. Reshef said he expects to enroll 5,000 students by 2016.

Tamar Lewin with the New York Times reported that currently the university has 700 students represented from 142 countries in programs like business administration and computer science. Thirty percent are from Africa, and twenty-five percent come from the United States. The first graduating class has only seven students but shows the wide range the university can reach.

Mr. Reshef has planned from the beginning to aim for higher education in developing countries at a low cost. The classes are low-tech, and the materials are text-based open source since many students have no access to high-speed internet or video. Students can participate through mobile device and are never charged tuition. The enrollment fee is minimal (between 0-$50) and exams are proctored in the student’s home country at a cost of $100 with scholarships available.  Reshef has said, “We want to make sure that no student is left out for financial reasons,”

Despite the opening of other online college options, like Coursera and edX, the University of the People remains different. Classes are offered in 10-week sessions, and the students have weekly homework and quizzes. The university relies mostly on volunteer labor that includes around 3,000 professors, so far only 100 have been used. The deans of the university are volunteers from Columbia and New York University. Mr. Reshef says, “Many people have been attracted by the possibility of opening opportunities for students from so many different backgrounds”

The University of the People, almost from the start, has attracted high-level support, with partnerships or backing from New York University, the Clinton Global Initiative, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the OpenCourseWare Consortium and many others. In August, Microsoft agreed to provide scholarships, mentoring and job opportunities to 1,000 African students who enroll at the University of the People.