A year after his tuition-free online university received its accreditation, Shai Reshef can’t believe he didn’t seek it sooner.
After three years’ toil and $1 million in expenses, University of the People received its accreditation from Distance Education Accrediting Commission, in 2014, and became the first tuition-free nonprofit online institution to do so. And it was almost immediately worth it. A year later, its student body has skyrocketed, and the university is now eligible for Title IV, which–if applied for–would allow its students to seek government loans for a UoPeople education (the school still charges $100 in examination fees per course).
But that certification of its quality came at a price (aside from the aforementioned $1 million). The accreditation process required Reshef and his network of about 3,000 volunteers from the academic world to edit their original 2009 mission to democratize higher education for everyone.
In addition to supervising UoPeople’s courses, exams, policies, and learning outcomes, the DEAC required admitted students to have a high school diploma from a verified school. What used to be higher-education resource for everyone would now only be able to open its doors to qualified students.
Here’s how Reshef took the plunge and adjusted his mission:
Within weeks of launching in 2009, it became clear to Reshef’s team that accreditation would have to be in the picture eventually.
“From the very first day, students start asking, ‘Are you accredited? By whom are you accredited?’ because most people take accreditation as a sign of quality,” Reshef told Fast Company. “Lots of students are afraid that if you’re not accredited that you’re a diploma mill–especially if you have students from developing countries. How do they know that what you deliver is really valuable? How will employers look at your degree?”
But Reshef started the university to address to make education accessible to people who needed it, including the poor, those from areas with overcrowded schools, women deprived of education for cultural reasons, and refugees deprived for political ones. The assumption had been that anyone can start at UoPeople, and if they’re good enough they’ll stay. If they’re not good enough, they’ll drop out.
A departure from that model would feel like an abandonment of the nonprofit’s original purpose.
“We felt that we were sacrificing part of our mission, actually, to be accredited,” Reshef said. “We started the university for people who couldn’t afford and didn’t have any other alternative but studying with us. We did the university for them, not for us. That’s the only reason.”
But those students were the ones calling for accreditation. So Reshef decided to listen to them. “If they want an accredited degree, they will get an accredited degree,” he says. “It’s as simple as that.”
After he made the decision to pursue accreditation, Reshef says he and the UoPeople team were in for a long process that would give anyone new to education pause: Endless supervision, disclosures, and edits to its various academic programs were in order.
But UoPeople’s executive leadership comprises people who serve at top American institutions and are all too familiar with the accreditation process. NYU president John Sexton, former Department of Education Undersecretary Martha Kanter, former George Washington University president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, and others number among UoPeople’s advisers. The Gates Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and others pitched in to help cover the expenses associated with tightening and revamping the UoPeople system.
And as UoPeople began to emerge from the accreditation process, Reshef says he was actually thankful for the rigor he went through. Besides admissions, the university had to tighten its English requirement for applicants. And students applying to the computer science program would now have to have appropriate levels of math credits. The DEAC added and changed material to some of the university’s courses and set measures in place for learning outcomes, graduation and retention, even post-grad employment.
“Going through accreditation forced us to do a lot of things different than what we originally thought,” he says. “To be frank, after being accredited, you are grateful to them for forcing you to do all this. Because actually going through the process forces you to improve your standards.”
As a result of the accreditation, the university now offers a course to earn those math credits before admission to the computer science program. And as of this year, UoPeople has 50% more women in its computer science program than the U.S. average for higher education.
With time, Reshef has also realized that by tweaking his course, he was able to stay true to his larger mission: democratizing higher education. Upping admission standards, though seemingly counterintuitive at first, was a boon to what UoPeople was trying to accomplish.
“We didn’t do a good service for the students who were ready or the students who were not ready,” Reshef says of UoPeople’s old system. “Because the students start studying, but they can’t make it. You accept students who are not qualified. Two weeks later, they are not students anymore. What did you do to them? Just give them another disappointment.
“At the same time, since our pedagogy is peer-to-peer learning, for those who are in the class and can make it, you put them together with students who are not at the right level. So they’re suffering, as well. You don’t do any good for anyone.”
With the accreditation, UoPeople is seeing a burst of growth from the U.S., as Reshef says U.S. students are more conscientious about accreditation. More than 50 percent of the university’s new students are now from the U.S., and about a third of those students are foreign-born, meaning they are either new immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, or undocumented students. About 60% of UoPeople’s U.S. student body come from areas of low income, and a third of its U.S. student body carry student loan debt from previous universities.
The university now has 2,000 students in its network–quadruple what it was last year before the accreditation. And while it’s not the 10,000 students Reshef predicted would attend UoPeople by 2015, UoPeople is on track to double its number of students to 4,000 next year.
With a year under his belt since the accreditation, Reshef calls the pivot the single most important milestone in UoPeople’s six-year history—he only wishes he’d done it sooner.
“It was probably one of the smartest decisions we’ve made,” he says.
This article has been updated to reflect that UofPeople is eligible for Title IV, not its students.