Free tuition sounds good to a lot of people. The UoPeople, as it calls itself for short, says it has 117,000 students from 200 countries. Reshef says 10 percent of them are refugees. Of those taking classes in the United States, 30 percent are Black students, 60 percent are first-generation college students and 50 percent are parents. After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, the UoPeople enrolled 1,600 Afghan women, who are able to study at home in secret. They are all on full scholarships.
The UoPeople ain’t Harvard. It offers few electives and a narrow set of academic programs: business administration, computer science, health science and education. In addition to bachelor’s degrees, there are certificate programs, associate’s degrees and master’s degrees in some fields. To keep costs down, the school forgoes not just a football stadium but also services like mental health counseling. “We can’t afford it and we don’t give it,” Reshef said.
On the other hand, the university is accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, which in turn is recognized by the Department of Education. And Reshef says the school is working to receive a standard (that is, not online-only) accreditation from the Accrediting Commission for Schools of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. If that process goes well the accreditation could happen as early as next year.
Simone Biles, the seven-time Olympic medalist in gymnastics, is probably the most famous person to have attended the UoPeople, although she has taken a leave of absence, according to Reshef. (“We hope she will come back and finish her degree,” he said.) The UoPeople’s dropout rate is high, but that’s the case with all online schools. Reshef says students are required to complete two courses just to matriculate, and about half never get that far. Around 25 percent of those who do enroll in bachelor’s programs complete their degrees within six years, he says.
The UoPeople’s public relations team put me in touch with Sarah Merlino, 40, of Watertown, Wis., who earned a master of business administration degree from the school in 2018. She was homeless in sixth grade, got pregnant as a high school junior and had a second child a year later. She eventually got a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree but piled up heavy student loans and medical debt — and still couldn’t get a good job. With her M.B.A. from the UoPeople, she landed a job at Amazon. She has been promoted twice and last year was sent to work on a project in Saudi Arabia, her first time out of the United States. How much did the UoPeople have to do with turning around her life? I asked. “All of it,” she said.