Students working toward a degree at the University of Florida this year paid about $4,500 per semester. Debbie Time, a 48-year-old who has attended University of the People from her Florida home since 2009, paid $0 in tuition for her entire business administration bachelor’s degree.
Time was the only member of her class who will attend a ceremony in New York City Thursday to honor the free online university’s first graduates. Three of her classmates from the U.S. could not get time off from work, and three classmates from Syria, Nigeria, and Jordan could not make the trip. The sparsely attended graduation is, in a way, a testament to the realities that inspired Shai Reshef to found the university in the first place.
"It’s about three years that the Syrian student is studying during a war," Reshef says. "We are very proud to have these kinds of students. The price is that they cannot come to our event, but we are very willing to pay this price."
University of the People began offering courses online in 2009. Its professors are volunteers from universities throughout the world. Its deans, also volunteers, are from New York University and Columbia. Most of its 700 students, from 142 countries, are located in developing countries.
Each of University of the People's courses run for about 10 weeks, and they are largely structured around online discussions and assignments. Because students contribute when they have time, people in different time zones become conversation partners. Time, an administrative assistant for an insurance company, and other students are able to keep their full-time jobs while taking classes, even when spending about 10 to 20 hours on coursework each week.
"It was not easy," Time says. "I had to take English one and two. I had to take economics. I had to take financial accounting. I had to take introduction to managerial accounting. It all became very real, very quickly."
Over the last decade, there have been many different approaches to creating alternatives to expensive college educations. Some suggest self-paced lessons over formal education or skills-based courses. And Peter Thiel has famously advocated doing away with college entirely.
The University of the People approach is arguably the most ambitious of all: to make college education free and available to anyone in any country. So far it's produced only seven graduates. But in February the school earned its accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council, which should give it more clout among employers and graduate schools.
Not that Time needed accreditation to validate her decision to take the University's classes.
"It didn’t matter—I was going to get my education."