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February 16, 2022

How Can This University Charge Nothing for Tuition?


Credit: Illustration by The New York Times; Photography by CSA-Images

By Peter Coy | Opinion Writer

Last Monday I got an email from a university president about Tara Westover’s powerful Opinion essay this month on her struggle to start college with no money. To afford tuition, Westover would get up at 3:40 a.m. to work as a janitor at her school — to “pick gum out of short nylon carpet, wipe strange equations from dusty chalkboards and scour the interior of toilet bowls with an odorless blue gel” before heading to class around 8 a.m., she wrote. (She went on to complete her bachelor’s degree and then earn a doctorate in history from the University of Cambridge.)

“She is the very type of person for whom we created the university,” Shai Reshef, the president of the University of the People, wrote in the email.

Reshef isn’t your average university president. The University of the People, which he founded in 2009, is an online-only institution that charges nothing for tuition. Students don’t have to pay for textbooks because all the educational material is made available for free online, and there’s no room and board because there’s no campus. They do have to pay $120 for each final exam, which they must pass to earn credits. For 40 courses, that adds up to $4,800 for a bachelor’s degree — although for students who face severe financial hardship, even the exam fees can be waived.

How is it possible to make a degree so cheap? The instructors and many of the administrators, including Reshef, work for no pay. The chair of the President’s Council is John Sexton, president emeritus of New York University. Professors from top universities volunteer as deans. The instructors tend to be retired professors or recently minted Ph.D.s who are looking for teaching experience. Foundations and individual benefactors have also chipped in. “The amount of people who are willing to do good for the world is shockingly high,” Reshef told me recently.

Free tuition sounds good to a lot of people. The UoPeople, as it calls itself for short, says it has 117,000 students from 200 countries. Reshef says 10 percent of them are refugees. Of those taking classes in the United States, 30 percent are Black students, 60 percent are first-generation college students and 50 percent are parents. After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, the UoPeople enrolled 1,600 Afghan women, who are able to study at home in secret. They are all on full scholarships.

The UoPeople ain’t Harvard. It offers few electives and a narrow set of academic programs: business administration, computer science, health science and education. In addition to bachelor’s degrees, there are certificate programs, associate’s degrees and master’s degrees in some fields. To keep costs down, the school forgoes not just a football stadium but also services like mental health counseling. “We can’t afford it and we don’t give it,” Reshef said.

On the other hand, the university is accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, which in turn is recognized by the Department of Education. And Reshef says the school is working to receive a standard (that is, not online-only) accreditation from the Accrediting Commission for Schools of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. If that process goes well the accreditation could happen as early as next year.

Simone Biles, the seven-time Olympic medalist in gymnastics, is probably the most famous person to have attended the UoPeople, although she has taken a leave of absence, according to Reshef. (“We hope she will come back and finish her degree,” he said.) The UoPeople’s dropout rate is high, but that’s the case with all online schools. Reshef says students are required to complete two courses just to matriculate, and about half never get that far. Around 25 percent of those who do enroll in bachelor’s programs complete their degrees within six years, he says.

The UoPeople’s public relations team put me in touch with Sarah Merlino, 40, of Watertown, Wis., who earned a master of business administration degree from the school in 2018. She was homeless in sixth grade, got pregnant as a high school junior and had a second child a year later. She eventually got a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree but piled up heavy student loans and medical debt — and still couldn’t get a good job. With her M.B.A. from the UoPeople, she landed a job at Amazon. She has been promoted twice and last year was sent to work on a project in Saudi Arabia, her first time out of the United States. How much did the UoPeople have to do with turning around her life? I asked. “All of it,” she said.

The question hanging over this feel-good story is whether this is just the beginning for no-tuition college — or whether this is as good as it gets. There’s plenty of demand for schools like the UoPeople. A UNESCO study in 2020 found that in the poorest segment of the world’s population, there was only 10 percent access to higher education in 2018, compared to 77 percent for the higher-income sector. But the supply of schools like the UoPeople is another matter: One limiting factor is the availability of teachers. How many altruistic educators with time on their hands can there be?

Still, it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, as someone once said. “If you can go to Harvard, go to Harvard,” Reshef said. “I’m there for those who have no other alternative.”

This story was first published in The New York Times on February 14, 2022