How University of the People is Breaking Down the Barriers to Higher Education

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Whether you’re a refugee, parent, Olympic medalist, or an average citizen with bills, here’s how to get a flexible and affordable university degree.

“The higher education system… is failing millions of potential students, millions that graduate high school, millions that are qualified for higher education, millions that want to study, yet cannot access [it],” said Shai Reshef, founder and president of the University of the People, in his TED talk.


Many people can’t afford higher education, others are limited by cultural reasons (women, for example, are not allowed to attend university in some places of the world), and yet others have everything they need to attend college, except enough availability in classrooms across their country.


Shai founded our university – a nonprofit, tuition free, accredited, American online university – “to create an alternative to those who have no other… [to] open the gates to higher education for every qualified student, regardless of what they earn, where they live, or what society says about them… Every student with a high school diploma, sufficient English and Internet connection can study with us,” he shared.


You can watch Shai’s entire TED talk here:



Here are some of the ways our new higher education model is breaking down the barriers, and turning education from a privilege to a birthright for people around the world. These are some real-life stories of actual UoPeople students, who dared to fight for a better future for themselves and their families, sometimes against the odds.


100 Million Qualified Students, and Not Enough Room in University Classes Worldwide


If you live in Africa, you know that there are many factors that influence your ability to gain higher education. One of them is especially frustrating – there’s not enough room to serve everybody.


A quote we previously shared from Quartz Africa explains it well by comparing the situation in Africa to the situation in the United States:


“A close examination by Quartz Africa of the top 10 most populous countries in Africa shows just over 740 universities serving some 660 million of Africa’s 1 billion people… Compare that figure with countries like the United States, which has some 5,300 universities and colleges serving a population of over 323 million people.”


This is felt intensely in Nigeria, for example, where there are simply not enough seats in higher education institutions. Here at the University of the People, we have 1,000 Nigerian students in our online degree programs, making it our number two country.


Unfortunately, the situation is about to get worse, and not just in Africa. “UNESCO stated that, in 2025, 100 million students will be deprived from higher education simply because there will not be enough seats to accommodate them, to meet the demand,” explained Shai in his TED talk.


Thankfully, the Internet has made it possible to open the gates of education to a countless number of people, because online, we can provide a limitless number of virtual of class seats.


Refugees and Asylum Seekers Who Can’t Produce Original Documentation and Can’t Afford to Pay for Education


When you understand you need to flee the country to keep yourself and your family safe, chances are you won’t stick around just to get original school diplomas or transcripts.


That’s definitely easy to understand.


But here at the University of the People, it’s important for us to do more than just sympathize. That’s why we let refugees and asylum seekers submit alternative documentation in their application process.


We also provide a range of scholarships to ensure gaining higher education becomes a realistic option for you. You can find refugee-specific scholarships here.


Undocumented Immigrants with Limited Legal and Financial Options


As NPR pointed out in a 2015 article, “federal law [in the US] does not prohibit undocumented students from enrolling in college, but it does something nearly as effective, banning them from receiving government aid. In recent years, though, some undocumented students have stumbled upon a little-known, nonprofit online university that doesn’t charge tuition and doesn’t care about students’ legal status.”


NPR was, of course, referring to University of the People, and in interview for that article, our founder and president, Shai, said that a quarter of University of the People’s US-based students are undocumented immigrants.


In a 2017 interview with EdSurge, Shai reaffirmed that “we stand with all students who find their futures threatened by this possible directive [of deportation], regardless of their legal standing inside or outside the US.”


Here at UoPeople, we not only offer affordable education and scholarships but also an option to submit alternative documentation if you don’t have access to your original school diplomas or transcripts. Please see the previous section (about refugees) and the next section (about saying no to student debt) in this article for more information.


Plus, click here for a detailed guide to your higher education options as an undocumented immigrant across the United States [link to the article about states that allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition fees].


Saying No to Paralyzing Student Debt


Living in a wealthy country like the US might open more doors to education, yet it doesn’t mean your journey will be obstacle-free. With approximately 1 in 7 Americans dedicating almost a fifth of their salary to paying off student debts, something has to change.


Take author Memory Bengesa, for example. She immigrated with her parents from Zimbabwe to the US when she was 16 years old, and her parents worked hard to give her opportunities they didn’t have, but neither them nor her could afford sending her to college.


To top it off, as an immigrant, she didn’t have access to in-state discounts, either, and would have had to pay a foreigner’s fee, which is exponentially higher.


This is her story:



At the University of the People, we decided to offer tuition-free degree programs at an accredited American university to everyone.


All you pay is processing fees:


  • $2,060 total for an entire two-year associate degree
  • $4,060 total for an entire four-year bachelor’s degree
  • $2,460 total for an entire MBA program


You can read more information here, and don’t forget to check out the scholarships we offer.


Parents Who Sometimes Juggle Way Too Much


In the video below, Madeline Bracken, an MBA student at University of the People, shares that she couldn’t afford to continue her education without going into hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt before she heard of UoPeople. In addition, she moves a lot across the country due to her husband’s job in the airline industry, which makes committing to a full degree program in one city almost impossible.


But Madeline knew that only relying on her husband’s salary, and not investing in her own professional development, could come at a high price. She’s seen mom friends who stayed home with their kids (which she has also), relying on their husbands’ salaries, then suddenly found themselves, single moms.


Taking the plunge and becoming an MBA student has already paid off. The skills she’s learned have helped her get a promotion and two raises within 3 months of working a part-time job, so she could still be there for her daughter.



Like Madeline, many parents juggle multiple life areas in their attempt to balance a job, finances, family and personal lives. An online university enables them to schedule their studies around the rest of their lives, and to progress in their degrees at their own pace.


Adults with Full-Time Jobs


Even if you’re not a parent, being an adult means you have bills to pay, responsibilities in the workplace and are maybe looking to build or nurture a personal life on the side.


The ability to schedule your degree around your life means your education can be sustainable. This allows you to keep taking care of other things that matter to you – not to mention the financial relief of paying $4,060 for an entire bachelor’s degree instead of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because this expense can be such a financial burden, many people ignore the reality of how critical college education still is to advancing professionally and financially.


People Who Want to Start or Grow Their Own Business


Michael Ferguson, who has lived in Washington state in the US for most of his life, is one of those adults with a full-time job. He works at Lyft, an on-demand transportation provider (similar to a taxi), as a driver, and takes classes between rides.


In the following video, which he recorded while waiting for a customer to come out of the airport, Michael shared that he once owned his own business, and he started studying at University of the People to do things better the second time around.


“I once owned my own business, and this was a chance to learn the skills that I should have had before I started that business, which went under. I used to own a furniture store. So I’m hoping that I can use the skills from this degree in business administration to start my own business again,” he shared.


You can watch his entire video here:



Michael is not alone. In our 2016 Graduates Annual Survey, we learned that “small business owner” was one of the top three areas of employment for graduates.


Location Independent People, Frequently Traveling Executives and Olympic Gold Medalists


David Koerner is a director at large of the Penn State Alumni Society board. He’s seen great career success in marketing and mergers and acquisitions, and he aspires to keep learning and keep growing, yet thought his options were limited.


“Currently, I commute regularly from my home in Denver [Colorado] to San Francisco [California], and I’m managing the launch of a revolutionary new financial services product in Jamaica, India and the UAE. I assumed that any MBA program would be too constraining for my schedule and come with huge opportunity costs. Then I heard from a friend about UoPeople,” he told us in an interview.


He signed up for the MBA program and has been loving the experience. “Someday, when I’m in charge of more than a small team, I plan to encourage all my direct reports without an MBA to get one from an affordable program like UoPeople and expand their knowledge base,” he added.


But crazy schedules aren’t just part of the corporate world.


People everywhere are making choices between career development and higher education, not realizing that the two can be combined in a sustainable way.


Athlete Simon Biles, for example, got into UCLA when she was a senior in high school, but then she decided not to go, even though it meant giving up a scholarship, because she needed the time to train for the Olympics.


Her investment paid off – she’s an Olympic gold medalist and world champion.


But, as she told Mashable, “after the Olympics, obviously, things got a little bit crazy, so I couldn’t go the following semester… so I’ve kind of have been holding off school for a while – until University of the People came.”


“Online, tuition-free university, and it’s kind of cool, because it’s affordable, the availability of it, it’s very accessible, so you can take it with you where you go, and I think that’s very helpful for my schedule, ’cause I know I travel a lot and compete quite a bit… I didn’t think that I could do college as well as other[s]… my age… so right now, I’m going to take one class at a time… It’s not out of reach,” she added in the Mashable interview.


During an interview with the TODAY show, Simone shared that she’s studying business administration, and her mom is studying alongside her at University of the People, just in the MBA program.


Simone is not just a student at University of the People. She’s also our global ambassador. Among others, she created a legacy scholarship fund for other University of the People students. Watch as she introduces it with our founder, Shai:



Dreamers Against the Odds


Renee Jennings didn’t come from wealth, so when she told her family that she will one day move to New York City – one of the most expensive cities in the world – and become a journalist, no one believed she could do it.


Renee was determined, and after high school got in the car and drove to New York City. But with no credentials, she found herself jobless and homeless.


She soon became an inspiration as a driven woman who wasn’t always sure what her next step would be, who made mistakes, but never, ever gave up on her dream.


She slowly found her professional path and gained the skills needed to move up the chain, but things still weren’t easy. With no degree, she hit a ceiling of professional growth… until she discovered University of the People.


Now, as a business administration student, she is well on her way to doubling her earning potential and breaking the barriers to reaching any professional dream she has.


You can watch her inspiring story in her own words in the following video:



Name Your Barrier to Higher Education, and Let’s Break it Together


Madeline, one of the students we featured in this article, calls herself “the biggest fan of UoPeople,” and we’re her biggest fans too. We’re hers, Renee’s, Simone’s, David’s, Michael’s and Memory’s biggest fans, and the biggest fans of each one of our other students, too.


Your courage to overcome adversity and make the effort it takes to realize your dream inspires us every day. It’s why we get up in the morning and why we work hard to make sure more and more people will have a way to access higher education.


If there’s a challenge that you face that we haven’t covered, remember that this is only a short list. Reach out to us in the comments or privately, and we’ll do everything we can to make sure higher education is within your reach.