University of the People (UoPeople) is a non-profit online institution that is nationally accredited in the United States and serves more than 65,000 students from over 200 countries. As 2021 rolls into Summer, University of the People is planning to offer a number of new courses, several of which focus on teaching remedial English–an ability that will serve the global student body well across a range of professions.
University of the People’s President is Shai Reshef, a prominent international businessman who earned a Master of Arts from the University of Michigan and was later awarded an honorary doctorate from the Open University. Shai has worked in the international education market for more than two decades and has been lauded by the press as a creative thinking game changer in the field of higher education. He has conducted several TED talks as well as speaking before the UN General Assembly, UNESCO and World Economic Forum. In addition, he has lectured at a number of prestigious universities around the world including Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Edinburgh and Oxford. Shai is already something of a public figure with his TED Talk and Nas Daily videos having amassed over 25 million views. Yet Shai mostly prefers to keep a low profile, working in the background to keep University of the People (UoPeople) running smoothly. Recently, however, he was persuaded to grant an exclusive interview where he discussed the brand-new course content that is forthcoming in 2021 and beyond.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get interested in education and what gave you the idea to launch University of the People?
Shai Reshef (SR): Before founding University of the People in 2009, I spent 20 years in the for-profit education sector. I began by developing KIT eLearning, the first online university outside the United States and the online learning partner of the University of Liverpool. During this period, I witnessed first-hand the transformative power of online higher education but knew that for many deserving people around the world, it was still far too costly. I firmly believe that education is a fundamental human right, not simply a privilege for those who are able to afford it. As such, I founded University of the People so that every high school graduate, regardless of financial, geographic, political or personal situation, can access higher education.
MM: How long did it take to design and launch the university and which courses and/or degree options did you start with?
SR: We announced the University of the People in January 2009 and our first class started that fall. The day we announced, The New York Times wrote an article about us which paved the way for the university’s breakthrough. The day after, I received hundreds of emails from professors and others who offered their help. These people volunteered to help make this dream of democratizing higher education come true. We conducted research to understand the most in-demand degree programs by employers worldwide. We began with degrees in business administration and computer science and have since added degrees in health sciences and education.
MM: Many of the students at University of the People are from struggling countries, so how tough is it to check their English skills before they enroll?
SR: All non-native English speakers must demonstrate that they have a strong level of proficiency in English before beginning their degree program at UoPeople or provide proof that they graduated from an accredited English-speaking institution. To help students develop their language skills, the university offers several English composition courses. Students must pass the English course requirement before they are officially accepted as degree-seeking students. Recently, we established a new division called the University of the People in Arabic which now has around 3,500 students. Proof of English proficiency is not a requirement for those wishing to study in Arabic.
MM: The school is now launching some additional courses designed to help people master English skills such as grammar. So, how long did it take to design these courses and when will they be implemented?
SR: To help people improve their English language and grammar skills, UoPeople is in the process of creating an English Language Learners (ELL) program that will offer a wide range of courses open to prospective students, current students and non-students.
MM: In total, how many new courses are being launched in 2021 and what does each one focus on teaching?
SR: In addition to the new ELL courses, the university is planning on developing several additional academic programs.
MM: Which degrees are the most popular among your students?
SR: Our most popular bachelor’s degree programs are in computer science, business administration, and health sciences. In addition, our MBA and master’s degree program in education also are in high demand.
MM: This school is tuition-free but what costs might students expect to pay overall? On the heels of that, is it difficult to offer such affordable education while keeping the company afloat and expanding?
SR: As a non-profit institution, UoPeople does not charge any tuition or enrollment fees and all course materials are available online for free. The university does charge a nominal assessment fee of $120 at the end of each undergraduate course and $240 for its graduate-level courses. That means a student can earn a bachelor’s degree for $4,860, an MBA for $2,940 or a master’s degree in education for $3,180. To fulfill its mission that no qualified student be left behind, the university offers a variety of scholarships for those who cannot afford the modest course assessment fees.
UoPeople’s ability to provide students with a high-quality, ultra-low-cost education is made possible by our innovative business model that includes 23,000 volunteers, being completely online (there are no costly buildings to maintain) and the use of the latest online teaching technology. The volunteers include members of the advisory boards, administration, deans and instructors – many of whom come from prestigious institutions, including Columbia, NYU, Princeton, Oxford, UC Berkeley, University of Edinburgh, Vassar, Barnard and McGill. Through open educational resources, open-source technology and business intelligence, the university can optimize efficiency and keep the cost to students as low as possible.
MM: What is some of the most memorable feedback you’ve gotten about the ways that University of the People has impacted people’s lives?
SR: The most enjoyable part of my job is hearing from our incredible students and graduates all over the world. We have students who have gone on to work at such companies as Apple, Amazon, Google, Pfizer, Microsoft and IBM. We have students who have lifted their families out of poverty and homelessness. We have students who are undocumented. We have students who are refugees studying in camps around the world. Every time I hear from a student or a graduate about how UoPeople has transformed their lives for the better, I am reminded of why I founded this university.
MM: You are now partnering with other schools like Harvard and Long Island University, so can you tell us a little bit about how those partnerships work?
SR: Earlier this year, UoPeople announced our collaboration with Harvard Business School Online. This relationship offers our students special access to HBS Online courses, at a significant discount, equipping them with valuable business knowledge to help them stand out in a competitive job market. We have also announced agreements with Effat University in Saudi Arabia, McGill University in Canada and Long Island University here in the United States. These agreements enable our associate degree graduates to transfer to study on-campus at our partner institutions and in fields that UoPeople does not provide.
Our agreement with LIU allows UoPeople students who successfully complete an associate degree in any of our undergraduate programs to apply for admission to LIU’s bachelor degree programs. We recognize that some degree programs, such as those in the health sciences, require in-person training and we are partnering with LIU to provide our students with this valuable option. Additionally, UoPeople graduates who complete their bachelor’s degree can continue their graduate studies at LIU.
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future of University of the People and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
SR: Our ultimate goal is to ensure that every high school graduate in the world has access to affordable, quality higher education. Education is a fundamental right. UoPeople will not stop growing until every student who wishes to access higher education can do so. I believe if you educate one, you change a life. If you educate many, you can change the world.
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