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An Interview with Shai Reshef--President, University of the People

By Donna Gardner Liljegren, Melissa Venable / October 2017

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What if there were an alternative to traditional colleges and universities? One that provided online access to accredited programs, in an affordable format, that leads to students reaching their employment goals? While this may not be a new idea, it's one that many institutions are not currently offering. The University of the People (UoPeople) is trying to change that.

Recently, we had the pleasure of speaking with Shai Reshef, an accomplished educational entrepreneur and UoPeople's current president and founder. This non-profit school's mission to provide college access "to qualified individuals regardless of geographic, financial, or societal constraints." UoPeople has grown to more than 10,000 students, including 1,000 refugees, since its first courses opened in 2009. Currently offering associate and bachelor's degrees in computer science, business administration, and health science, along with an MBA program, UoPeople reaches an audience of learners from 200 countries and territories.

We asked Reshef to share more insight into the institution's academic programs and student experience. From its financial model to the engagement of a primarily volunteer workforce, UoPeople wants to set an example for institutions and governments that could launch similar education initiatives across the globe.

Please tell our readers about the mission of the University of the People.

We are building a model to show that higher education can be accessible, affordable, and employable, and showing other institutions and governments that it can be done. There are millions of people around the world who cannot afford higher education for various reasons, and we believe online can bring education to everyone.

While the university is tuition-free, there are costs for students. What is the current financial model for the institution and are students from the U.S. eligible for federal financial aid?

Students pay a one-time application fee of $60 and a course assessment fee of $100 when they get to the course exam. It turns out to be about $4,000 for a full B.A. degree. They don't pay for buildings or textbooks. There are no other costs involved. We are able to do so because we lean on volunteers. Most of the work is done by volunteers. I'm a volunteer, the president's council are volunteers, the provost, the vice provost, the deans, the instructors are all volunteers.

As for financial aid, we have chosen not to pursue this. We believe with the amount that we charge, American students can afford the small amount. The cost is about $20 a week, studying full-time, to pay for the exams. And if students cannot afford that, we have scholarships for them. On the other hand, if we have to go through the bureaucracy of financial aid, it might result in us being unable to remain tuition-free because we'd need so many bureaucrats to meet all of the standards. Theoretically, we could be eligible but we have decided not to be so.

We currently have over 10,000 students. We are becoming financially sustainable and I think it's extremely important because we don't want our operation to lean on donations. I believe any NGO should try to be sustainable. First of all it's very important for us not to be dependent upon grants for our existence, but I think it's also as important to send a strong message to others that higher education can be accessible and sustainable with a minimum of costs.

Your programs are designed for students with limited bandwidth and resources—avoiding the use of video, audio, and textbooks to keep costs low. How do you envision UoPeople using emerging technologies to achieve its mission in the future?

Our limitations are not only in our ability to make investments but in the student's ability to use the technology. Recently we started using video optionally. We tell the students, if you have broadband, please watch the video. If you don't, please use the text. We enable the students with broadband to enjoy the richness of the internet. We try to navigate between those who have broadband and those who do not. We will continue to do this in the future. Program availability will be based upon access to broadband. In health science, for example, you cannot study without broadband because you must do labs. We want to make sure that everyone who can, can study with us, but they may not be able to study everything that we offer.

The other thing we are navigating for the future is Open Educational Resources (OER). We believe that we were the first university to use OER only. We never ask a student to buy a single book, ever. That has been true since 2009. It's a growing phenomenon now. Students in the U.S. spend $1,200 on average per year for textbooks. That's more than our students would pay for assessment fees in one year if they study full-time. It's an amazing amount of money.

How has the completion of a UoPeople program impacted the lives and employment of your learners?

We have students from more than 200 countries and territories. If you put enemies together, they discover that their cultures are very similar. Palestinians and Israelis learn that their cultures are close to each other. Pakistanis and Indians realize their cultures are much closer than they realized. We break these perceptions by putting people together.

One of the things we've discovered is a growing phenomenon of Muslim women studying with us. Being able to study at home enables people who may not be welcome or do not feel comfortable leaving home to pursue their studies. We have many Muslim women—and most of them are studying computer science. This is a phenomenon in general. There are 50 percent more women in our computer science program than the typical U.S. computer science program. It's a great opportunity for them.

Over 1,000 of our students are refugees; 500 are Syrian refugees. Half of them are studying from Syria itself. We were fortunate to have enough grant money to support them. We need more. There are more Syrian and other refugees who want to study with us, so we are working to find enough scholarships for that. We took more Syrian refugees than any university in the world and we are proud of that. By the way, they are great students and we hope that we will be able to continue providing this opportunity.

We have refugees from Africa, Sudan, Myanmar, Eritrea—it's a big world issue. We believe whether you want to help integrate refugees in their hosting countries or you want them to go back to their country to rebuild, education is the way to do this. Either way, it's in the best interest of the refugees and the people who live in these places around the world. I wish that more universities would feel the same.

How do you support students in their job searches?

We are building our career service center. It's a young organization and is not as developed as we want it to be. In the coming year we will be doing even more to develop it, but even now we have graduates working with IBM, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, the United Nations, and the World Bank. The list goes on and on. Our graduates are doing quite well.

We recently developed a new initiative around program advising, employing our graduates to help our students. We have students from more than 200 countries and territories and a lot of them find it quite hard to learn how to study with us. They have email messages from the provost, but they don't know what a provost is because that is an American term. They need to register; they need to do this; they need to do that. There are a lot of issues they are facing which are new for them. We decided to develop a team of program advisors from our graduates to help our students. Who better than our graduates, who know the University? Students have a single stop for any questions that they have. The program advisors may not know the answer, but they will know whom to ask at the university so they are actually the people to answer all of the questions that the students have. The problem is, we can't find enough graduates to hire as advisors because they are working elsewhere. They don't need us for jobs.

We are a relatively unknown institution and as such most employers don't know about us, so in the long run we feel we should do more to spread the word about us to potential employers so that when we have larger numbers of graduates it will be the same as it is now and students will be able to find jobs. I would note another thing: It's fair to say that almost all of our students work while they are studying with us. When we survey them after graduation, we ask them if they are working. That question isn't good enough. We need to change our question and ask them after a few years (three to four years down the line): Did they get a better job, promoted, change in salary, move to a different job? This way we can see how much the degree did to help themthat they are not stuck in the same job that they had before they started studying with us. For that we need to wait a few more years to measure it.

What is your completion rate?

It's hard to answer because we changed our admission process along the way. At the beginning we accepted all students to the program—anyone could start. Later on we decided that wasn't good for the university or the students because we enrolled students who were not ready for the program. It didn't work for them because they started and a few weeks later they weren't with us anymore because they couldn't do it. And it's not good for the rest of the students.

We did two things to improve this. First we introduced an English course for all who come without English as a first language. Then we offered two courses as a path for admission. Every single student must pass these two courses to become a student. If they pass, they get credit; however, if they don't pass the courses, they can't continue with us. Since introducing these two courses, we are losing about 50 percent of the students. So because they don't become students, we don't count them in our enrollment numbers. It's really a win-win. We say to students, if you think you are good enough, come in, try. If you pass these two courses, you meet our standards. They are two regular courses. The first is Online Strategies, about pedagogy, expectations, plagiarism—all of the things they need to know if they study with us. The second course is one they choose from the majors (business, health science, or computer science.) Basically, it gives them a taste of who we are [and] what we teach. They may find it's not what they expected. It allows us to screen them, and for them to screen us. If they pass, they meet our standards and can continue with us. After the screening, we have about 95 percent retention per course. Comparatively, this is extremely high.

We initially started this process for refugees because they often come to us without transcripts and there's no way to prove that they graduated from high school. They testify that they have a diploma but they don't have it with them. With this system, it allows in these few unique cases to let them demonstrate high school completion through the successful completion of the courses.

How do you prepare volunteer faculty members for online teaching?

First of all, we prefer people with experience teaching online. All the professors go through an orientation course, which is a screening course in a way because if they don't meet our standards, or cannot perform in the way that we request, or are not willing to commit to the time that is required, we don't use their services.

They all come to us as volunteers. While we do pay an honorarium, we treat them as volunteers. In fact, quite a few send back the honorarium check. The surprising thing is that almost all of the instructors who start with us stay with us. They are happy. The unique thing about us is that, our mission is the thing that draws the volunteers, but then they start working with us and are in touch with amazing students from around the world. They may teach a course of 20 students and have a refugee from Syria whose house was bombed, someone who has survived the genocide in Rwanda, someone who is homeless or undocumented in the U.S. These are amazing people with incredible stories. The faculty members enjoy what they're doing and value our student body, so they stay with us.

According to Reshef, the "name of the game" in today's global society is to not only provide access to education that is affordable, but also to ensure high-quality learning experiences that help students reach their employment goals. Through a wide variety of strategic partnerships, which include NYU, UC Berkeley, Microsoft, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and many more, UoPeople is laying the groundwork for a new educational model.

For more information about Shai Reshef and the University of the People, view his TED talk: "An Ultra-Low-Cost College Degree." Explore volunteer opportunities to find out how your professional skills and experience will help guide UoPeople students in their quest for knowledge.

About the Authors

Donna Gardner Liljegren, Ed.D. is Dean of Online Enrollment & Continuing Education for AU Online at Aurora University in Illinois. She has held faculty and executive leadership roles in private and for-profit institutions of higher education since 1992 and has been teaching and developing online, hybrid, and flex courses since 1997. Donna earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in English and focused her doctoral studies on adult learning and online program assessment.

Melissa Venable works at where she creates web content on a wide range of topics related to college and career decision-making. In this role she also conducts an annual research project reporting online education trends, and moderates a weekly Twitter chat covering issues in edtech and online teaching. Melissa earned her doctorate in curriculum and instruction - instructional technology from the University of South Florida. She is also a certified career coach with a background in higher education career counseling and academic advising. Melissa currently serves as secretary for the National Career Development Association, and teaches online courses in instructional design as an adjunct instructor for Saint Leo University and the University of South Florida.

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