How University of the People supports students in the developing world

When Assan was just a young boy living in Uganda, his father died, leaving him to take care of his 25 siblings and his father’s three wives. His family was very poor, and life was a struggle.


Assan managed to graduate from high school, which made him the most educated person in his family. Continuing his studies, however, just wasn’t possible as tuition for a single semester would have been more than a year’s salary. Then he discovered the University of the People (UoPeople), the world’s first non-profit, free, and accredited online university that offers degrees. Now Assan is studying for his B.S. in computer science.

Established in 2009 by Israeli entrepreneur Shair Reshef, the university gives students who face barriers to education­—including money, geography, and societal restraints—the opportunity for a better future.

A lean operation

With an annual budget of just $1 million, UoPeople runs a lean operation.

The university exists on donations and the fees students pay to apply (from $10 to $50) and take exams ($100 each). (Annual enrolment, courses, books and study materials are free.) It keeps its expenses low by using volunteer professors, open source technology and open education resources. Plus, since it’s completely online, it doesn’t run into the costs that a big university does for items such as research, buildings, etc.

A collaborative learning model

UoPeople’s model is peer-to-peer collaborative learning.

It doesn’t use audio or video, so that students who don’t have broadband access can fully participate. (A quarter of its students do not have broadband and can’t play video; six per cent use only mobile devices.)

Students at can study for associate and bachelor degrees in both computer science and in business administration. To be accepted they need to be proficient in English (all of its courses are in English), and be a high school graduate over the age of 18.

Nearly 1,500 students from 137 countries have enrolled at UoPeople since it opened in 2009. Currently, there are 736 active students and UoPeople will graduate its first batch of 48 students within the next year.

Accreditation is still a challenge

In 2012, the university received $500,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help with its accreditation. But until it passes that bar, UoPeople’s graduating students will finish their studies without an accredited degree.

Lack of accreditation isn’t the only problem; employers disregard for online education is also a factor.

In a survey of 656 human resources professionals in the U.S., 56 per cent said they preferred applicants with traditional degrees from an average university to those with an online degree from a top university.

Perhaps, in time, those attitudes will change. In the meantime, free online universities, and open education in general, will become less of an anomaly.

Notable quotes

“The demand for higher education is so immense that I do not think online education will ever render brick and mortar institutions, which serve as valuable research institutions, obsolete. But because of the demand and rising costs of higher education, they can’t service all those in need.” -Shair Reshef, president, University of the People

“Like many Africans, I was born in a polygamous family to never-educated parents who were land tillers. We are more than 25 siblings. When my father died, I had to struggle on my own to go school and care for my mother and siblings. I had lost all hopes of ever attaining a University degree because I had no source of tuition fees. University of the people came to my rescue.” – Assan S., computer science student, University of the People

“If online education has a chance to change the developing world, University of the People is where it will have started.” – Foreign Policy Magazine, Nov 2012

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Assan© 2012 by Give for Youth

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