Has University of the People proven the value of a 'free' online degree?
Online learning has helped students develop the discipline and drive to structure and follow their own study plans. Source: Wojtek Radwanski / AFP

Among all tertiary-level students, you could say those enrolled in an online university were best prepared for learning during the pandemic.

Virtual learning platforms are their classrooms. They only see their professors and coursemates on screen. Best of all, they have developed the discipline and drive to structure and follow their own study plans.

This is the experience of University of the People (UoPeople) student Giulia Barbagallo from Italy, a wife and mother in the Bachelor of Business Administration programme.

It takes serious multi-tasking and time management to care for her family, home, and herself while handling pandemic stress.

“However, I am glad to be a student of UoPeople because it has always given me the opportunity to organise my studies the way that works best for my life,” Giulia told Study International.

University of the People

While university students are being forced online around the world, for many, this is the only option they have ever had. Source: Shutterstock

Almost 4,000 km away in Senegal, Mohamed Diop is in his first year of the Bachelor of Computer Science. Since his country went under quarantine, he has been spending his days on creative activities, using music and drawing to generate fuel for his online learning.

“We have one unit per week a unit being a composition of different assignments whether they are reading, writing, programming assignments or quizzes. I try to know what the assignments are about as soon as they are posted, then I take a couple of days to do other fulfilling activities,” Mohamed shared.

“At least three days before the next unit, I take my time and complete the assignments with all the ideas I have formed during this time.”

University of the People: It’s about access

UoPeople markets itself as the “first non-profit, American-accredited, tuition-free online university” — a claim that raises hope, but also questions.

Among its recognisable students is American Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, who is also UoPeople’s Global Ambassador. She told Forbes that the university not only “opened up an opportunity for me that didn’t otherwise exist” but also “those who were told they weren’t wealthy enough; those who were told that women don’t belong in the classroom; and those who were told there were no options in their part of the world”.

University of the People

Shai Reshef is an educational entrepreneur who started the University of the People in 2009. Source: UoPeople

UoPeople President Shai Reshef has always operated on the belief that education is a fundamental human right, not a privilege.

“I witnessed first-hand the power of online education but knew that for so many deserving people around the world, it was still far too costly,” he explained over e-mail.

What is the secret to a free university, you ask? It is a combination of accessible, low-tech educational resources and experienced volunteer professors. Here, you do not pay for courses, textbooks, or enrolment.

“Students are asked only to pay an assessment fee per course completed, which totals $100 for undergraduate programs and $200 for graduate programs,” Reshef clarified. You can earn a full bachelor’s degree for $4,000. If this is more than you can afford, scholarships are available — but waitlists are long.

It took ten years, but UoPeople has achieved financial sustainability through this model.

University of the People

UoPeople students mostly consist of working adults, young parents, undocumented students, and refugees. Source: Shutterstock

Built almost entirely in a virtual space, its students are primed for learning through a crisis. In fact, most of its 31,000 students currently enrolled chose the university because they can’t afford any other.

These students come from 200 countries and territories around the world; they are working adults, young parents, undocumented students, and refugees. In the US, 92% of its students are from the lower third income quartile.

“We welcomed 7,500 new students in our fourth term, many of whom joined a result of COVID-19,” Reshef shared.

Collaborations and resources create opportunities

In recent years, UoPeople have been establishing connections far and wide. Among its recent collaborators are the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (to award scholarships to Syrian refugee students) and the US Department of State (for full scholarships to students in Burkina Faso).

Reshef added, “The University has agreements with NYU, UC Berkeley, and the University of Edinburgh, allowing UoPeople students to continue their studies at these institutions.”

Mieko Muraro from Japan obtained her associate’s degree from University of the People and transferred to UC Berkeley while juggling her business in the US. Source: UoPeople

Such collaborations have allowed UoPeople graduates like Mieko Murao to transfer to University of California, Berkeley after receiving her associate’s degree online.

She left Japan for the US after ten years running her own design business, buying a restaurant to obtain an investment visa, then selling it to significant profit. She then replicated this with another restaurant.

It’s a lovely success story, but it did not come easy for Mieko. She had to learn to navigate a new industry while adjusting to the differences in conducting business in Japan and the US.

“I actually didn’t have much faith in education, because I had proven to myself that I could be successful without it. However, I realized the scale of the gaps in my knowledge when I started my new business in the US. That’s when my interest in education began to grow,” Mieko shared.

Still, being a mother and running a business meant she had little time to spare. That’s when her sister recommended UoPeople, which Mieko now calls “the most diverse school in the world.”

“UoPeople’s content is comparable to the quality of traditional or brick-and-mortar universities,” Mieko said.

University of the People

Expanding your networking is a large part of university life, and it doesn’t have to be compromised online. Source: Shutterstock

“I was able to have conversations with students from all over the world and soak up many different perspectives. That experience made me more humble and instilled a work ethic that places compassion first. UoPeople helped me to refine these skills, ultimately making me a much more effective business person.”

Mieko will be pursuing her Master’s in Integrated Design and Management at MIT.

“As part of my career, I would like to design products and systems that would nudge people to cherish our limited resources and mitigate waste,” she shared.

When UoPeople first opened in 2009, employers were still doubtful about a free online degree.

Now, 92% of UoPeople graduates are employed. Some work in Amazon, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, the United Nations and the World Bank.

More still are simply people on unconventional life paths hoping to upgrade their lives with education. University of the People has made it a mission to channel resources towards those who have none, and for that, the low-cost, online university model deserves a fighting chance.

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