University of the People: Tuition-Free, Accredited Online Degrees in Computer Science, Business Administration (MBA), Education (M.Ed.)

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Did you know that there exists a tuition-free, accredited, online university where you can obtain an Bachelor’s degree in Computers Science, MBA, or Masters in Education for a tiny fraction of the cost of traditional universities? The University of the People was recently profiled by the NYT in How Can This University Charge Nothing for Tuition? (gift article).

Is is really free? Not quite, but I think the structure is very fair as it charges a small fee only when you are ready to earn course credit. From the NYT article:

The University of the People, which he founded in 2009, is an online-only institution that charges nothing for tuition. Students don’t have to pay for textbooks because all the educational material is made available for free online, and there’s no room and board because there’s no campus. They do have to pay $120 for each final exam, which they must pass to earn credits. For 40 courses, that adds up to $4,800 for a bachelor’s degree — although for students who face severe financial hardship, even the exam fees can be waived.

Here are the total approximate costs (not per year!) to earn a UoPeople degree:

Associate Degree: $2,460
Bachelor’s Degree: $4,860
Master of Business Administration (MBA): $2,940
Master of Education (M.Ed.): $3,180
Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT): $3,660

To put this in context, if you assume four years for the BS/BA, that’s $100 a month. That’s less than the average monthly cable and internet bill.

The extra $60 is from the $60 application fee. You can also obtain transfer credit from your previous coursework and/or other free and low-cost educational sites like Saylor Academy, and Coursera to both speed up your progress and lower your total cost even further.

How is this possible?

How is it possible to make a degree so cheap? The instructors and many of the administrators, including Reshef, work for no pay. The chair of the President’s Council is John Sexton, president emeritus of New York University. Professors from top universities volunteer as deans. The instructors tend to be retired professors or recently minted Ph.D.s who are looking for teaching experience. Foundations and individual benefactors have also chipped in. “The amount of people who are willing to do good for the world is shockingly high,” Reshef told me recently.

This reminds of the intro for book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink (same author as Power of Regret), where the author reminds us that in 1996 there would two options for an encyclopedia:

  • Microsoft Encarta, run by a huge and profitable company and written by paid experts.
  • Wikipedia, run by a lean non-profit and written entirely by unpaid volunteers.

Today, I probably check Wikipedia once a day and Encarta has been gone for over a decade. People are not solely motivated by money. We like to be part of a greater purpose. (Although I have tried to contribute to Wikipedia and gotten deleted unceremoniously.)

UoPeople won’t work for everyone, but I find it very fascinating. I wonder if they incorporate volunteer tutors or “TAs” as well to help the students along.

See also: 2020 follow-up article on Georgia Tech Online Master in Computer Science, first mentioned in 2013. Total tuition about $7,000.

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  1. This is excellent! I had an idea of something like this, but it would have more public funding (taxes) and be less volunteer (I didn’t think that would work out). There’s a need for scalable, accredited degrees, at a reasonable price point (or free).

    Community college kind of fits the bill. I think we just need a version of this that has a national grading system (some kind of standardization) that can show proficiency to overcome the lack of prestige.

  2. Great stuff just a bad name for a university

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