An Educated Guest

Ep.4 | Opening Access to Higher Education Through Tuition-Free Degrees


Guest: Shai Reshef, President of University of the People

 

Todd Zipper, President of Wiley Education Services, welcomes Shai Reshef, President of University of the People. Todd and Shai discuss how University of the People provides tuition-free online education to qualified individuals regardless of geographic, financial, or societal constraints. Listen to their conversation on your favorite podcast platform.

Topics Discussed:

  • Maximizing open-source technology and resources to increase access to affordable, quality education across the globe
  • Disrupting the industry with a low cost, tuition-free model powered by the support of 25,000 volunteers
  • Leveraging peer-to-peer learning and instructor supervision to achieve scale while maintaining course quality and a 14:1 learner to instructor ratio
  • Ensuring learner success through a unique admissions model and individual support throughout the learner’s journey
  • Collaborating with global universities to provide increased access and pathways to higher education

Guest Bio

Shai Reshef is the President of University of the People, the world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, American, accredited online university, dedicated to opening access to higher education.

An educational entrepreneur, Shai Reshef received a PhD from the Open University and has more than 30 years of experience in international education. From 1989 to 2005, he served as Chairman of the Kidum Group, a for-profit educational services company. Starting in 2001, Shai also chaired KIT eLearning, the online learning partner of the University of Liverpool and the first online university outside of the United States.

Shai is a member of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration; being named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business; selected by OneWorld as one of its ‘People of 2009;’ awarded an Ashoka fellowship; joined UN-GAID as a High-level Adviser; presented at TED; granted an RSA Fellowship; selected by The Huffington Post as the Ultimate Game Changer in Education; nominated as one of Wired Magazine’s 50 People Changing the World; and selected as a Top Global Thinker by Foreign Policy Magazine. Recently, he was awarded the Prince’s Prize for Innovative Philanthropy by Prince Albert II of Monaco.



View Transcript

Speaker 1:
You’re listening to An Educated Guest, a podcast that brings together great minds in higher ed to delve deeper into the innovations and trends guiding the future of education and careers, hosted by the president of Wiley Education Services, Todd Zipper.

Todd Zipper:
Hello, and welcome to An Educated Guest. I am your host Todd Zipper and today, I am here with Shai Reshef, president of University of the People. I have to start off with this quote I read from the President Emeritus at NYU, John Sexton.” In the age of information technology and innovation, University of the People is showing us the way. Shai, thanks so much for being here today.

Shai Reshef:
Thanks for inviting me, an honor to be here.

Todd Zipper:
I’m really excited to dive in, but first, let’s talk a bit about your background. You’re an education entrepreneur having worked in the international education market for over 25 years. One of your latest ventures prior to starting University of the People was chairing KIT E-learning, the online learning partner of the University of Liverpool, the first online university outside of the U.S.. So let’s get started. How did your past education experiences shape your vision for ultimately starting University of the People?

Shai Reshef:
So I was involved in for-profit education for over 20 years, and as you mentioned, and I was responsible of tens of programs educating hundreds of thousands of students, but what is relevant here is that among other things we started, as you mentioned, the first online university in Europe through partnership with University of Liverpool. That’s where I discovered how powerful online learning can be with students from all over the world. They can stay at home, keep their job and still get this great education, while at the same time, we also realized that for most people it was nothing but the wishful thinking. They simply could not afford it. So I ended up selling this university. As I mentioned, it was for-profit and I went to New York, semi retired, looking around and feeling that I want to continue.

Shai Reshef:
I can’t do nothing, but it was clear to me that I want to do something that will have an impact on the world. I felt that I’m fortunate. I have enough, it’s my turn to give back. For me to give back and to have an impact must be through education, because when you think about it, when you educate one person, you can change a life. When you educate many, you can change the world. So I looked around and I realized that everything that made this European university so expensive was already available for free; open source technology, open educational resources and the new phenomenon that was building there of social networking, where people were willing to share, teach and learn from each other for free. So I told myself, “Wait a second. All I have to do is to put it together and create a tuition-free university.” So I did, and this is University of the People, actually.

Todd Zipper:
That’s incredible. So you started University of the People in 2009. As you like to say, it’s an education revolution. It is the first non-profit, tuition-free, super low cost, which you’ll talk about how they pay for assessments, American-accredited online university. It’s amazing that you have 65,000 students today in over 200 countries offering all sorts of degrees and there’s a lot of student satisfaction, from what I can read, from what’s out there, outstanding numbers. Can you talk about these humble beginnings? You started with nothing, essentially, and you started this university in just 12 years, 65,000 students.

Shai Reshef:
So I mentioned how the idea came about, and I went to announce the university in a conference, actually, in Germany. The next day, the New York Times wrote a page about it saying, “Well, tuition-free university? That’s unheard of.” So they wrote a page and the day after, I already had hundreds of emails from professors said, “Wow, this has been amazing idea. We want to help to make this dream come true,” and they made this dream come true. So since then, we had a lot of volunteers helping us, writing, building a university, everything from the procedure to the curriculum, to the pedagogy. So we announced the university in January of 2009 and in September, we were already teaching the first cohort of students, 179 students. From there, we just grew all the way to have more than 65,000 students this term.

Todd Zipper:
Wow. So you’ve been pretty vocal about the higher ed system, how it’s failing millions of students today and a lot of students that just don’t have access. Was this the main motivation, or were there other things about the system that you saw was broken that you felt like you could fix?

Shai Reshef:
You’re right. The main motivation, UNESCO stated that there are 100 million; to be accurate, 98 million students will not have seats in 2025 in the then existing universities, 100 million students. Can you think of a better reason for the invention of the internet than spreading the knowledge to anyone who wants to get an education? We believe that higher education should be a basic right for all and not a privilege for a few. We know that the internet enables us to do so and I created the university believing that we should have the opportunity for every student that is out there, opening the gates to every qualified student, but also to show others that higher education can be accessible, affordable, with the right quality.

Shai Reshef:
So we want to serve as many students as we can since then and that’s still what we’re doing today and will continue to do, but also, to show others that what we do others can do as well, because remember, I just mentioned what we do is out there, open source technology, open educational resources, everyone can use the knowledge that we have and others have the same knowledge and can do the same.

Todd Zipper:
So let’s dive into that, in terms of how the University of the People does not charge tuition. What does that exactly mean? You’re talking about open source, open educational resources, I presume. But still there’s, if you think about a traditional cost campus, you have buildings, you have registrar offices, you’re an accredited university. There’s a lot of administration that you have to do. You have faculty, you have to teach, you have to enroll students, you have to market, you have so many things you have to do. How do you bring down the cost so much? Can you talk to us a little bit about this?

Shai Reshef:
Well, I never count all this element. If I would have count, then maybe I wouldn’t have started the university, but well, first of all, students don’t pay tuition. They don’t pay for books. They take the course of study for free, and when they get to their assessment over there at the end of the course, we expect them to pay $120. Per each end of course assessment fee, it’s 240 for master level courses. If they don’t have the money, we offer them scholarships. So first of all, to make sure that it’s clear, our mission is that nobody will be left behind for financial reasons. So we do expect them to pay $120. We do our best to have enough scholarships for those who cannot afford even that. But the idea is, and when you think about it, $120 per course makes it $1,200 per year for students who study full-time and 4,800 for a full degree for credit at American university and this amount is actually enough for us to have our operation financially sustainable.

Shai Reshef:
The reason that we are financially sustainable with this small amount is because we do everything we can to save money. So to start with, we use technology everywhere we can to save costs and to improve the quality of the service we give the students. Obviously, we don’t have buildings. We operate from different parts of the world. Wherever we can achieve, we can get the right quality at a relatively competitive price and as you mentioned, we use volunteers. We have now close to 25,000 volunteers. So we have a lot of volunteers and the volunteers are the backbone of the university. I’m a volunteer. The provost is a volunteer. The vice provost is a volunteer. The deans are volunteers and all the instructors come to us as a volunteer. So we have thousands of volunteers that actually make this operation work. We do have some faculty, we do have some administration on our, we have paid staff, but overall we are a very lean operation.

Todd Zipper:
Yeah. It’s really incredible because faculty, obviously, are hard to come by and are expensive, in the pandemic, which I haven’t mentioned yet, but I’ll go there. The University of the People expanded dramatically during this time, which implies that you would have to expand your ratios of faculty as well, so I’d love for you to talk a little bit about, if you’re willing to, what your faculty-to-student ratios are and depending on how you define them, and then how did this last 15 months go in terms of scaling with the demand, going from, I think you said something like 20,000 to 65,000 during this time period?

Shai Reshef:
So if it did change very, very recently, it’s 14:1, and the growth doesn’t affect the ratio because when students take a class with us, they are being put together 20 to 30 students in a class with an instructor. Our pedagogy is peer-to-peer learning where they teach and learn from each other all week long under the supervision of the instructor. So for every 20 students, we need an instructor and if we have more students, we need more instructors. Because we have such a big pool of volunteers, we have enough instructors and the pandemic didn’t change it. But I think that it affect the students, the amount of students that came to us, which has increased dramatically; it did not affect the ratio to instructors.

Todd Zipper:
So you talked about peer-to-peer learning. I’d love to dive into that a little bit, because that seems like a core tenant of what you’ve been able to implement and to achieve scale, which is fantastic while maintaining quality. I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about that.

Shai Reshef:
Sure. So let me describe class a week or the class. Well, let’s describe a class and I think it will make it clearer. So when students sign up and they got accepted to the university, by the way, they have to pass two courses in order to become degree-seeking students. But when they get into it, they take a course. Every course is eight-weeks long. The ninth week is the final exam. Every week starts on Thursday, ends on Wednesday to ensure that the weekend is the middle of the week for any students. We have students, the 65,000 students are coming from over 200 countries and territories, so we want to ensure that the weekend is in the middle of the week and when they come to the class, the virtual class, obviously, they first find the profile of the 20 to 30 students like themselves who are coming usually from 20 to 30 different countries.

Shai Reshef:
They find a profile and their profile might be whatever they decide to share with the class. Some might only give their names; others will share their entire history, videos of their cat, whatever they want. Then, every week after getting into the class, they find the lecture notes of the week, the reading assignment, the homework assignment and the discussion question. So let’s say that the first student is Chinese, simply because the week starts earlier in China and he goes into the class and he finds the lecture notes, maybe the video that we sent him to watch. He read all the material and he gets to the discussion question and he decides to comment, to have his own original contribution to the class discussion. He contributed his contribution to the class discussion. The second student, let’s say that she’s Indonesian.

Shai Reshef:
She does this, but at that point, she already sees what the Chinese wrote. She decided to comment on what the Chinese said, and the third student is German or Saudi Arabian or whatever. They go into the class and, again, they see what the Chinese wrote, what the Indonesian commented on it, and then decide to comment as well. The Chinese is very likely to go back to the class to look at what other people have to say about his point and the discussion start developing between themselves under the supervision of the instructor. So every week, every student must have at least one original contribution to the class discussion, at least three times to comment on what others students say and the instructor is there every day to reading the discussion, how it develops, to correct mistakes, to answer questions if someone asked a question and nobody was able to answer, to redirect the discussion, or to talk directly to any student one-on-one.

Shai Reshef:
So all week long, the discussion develops between the students. By the end of the week, they hand in the right their homework, which is assessed anonymously and randomly by three of their peers and under supervision of the instruction, who is able to override the grades that they give each other. Every week they get grades for the class participation, for their homework, for the log for quiz. If they had a quiz this week, they get the grades for the week and go to the next week, eight weeks in a row. The ninth week, they take a final exam, which is proctored, get the final grade of the course and go to the next course. So it’s very interactive. It’s 15 to 20 hours per week, per course, that the students take. So actually, when you think about it, two courses, 30 to 40 hours, it’s pretty much full-time very interactive, but very high satisfaction for the students.

Todd Zipper:
Look, I think that is a great innovation that uses the technology and the resources that you have. Like you said, you guys are, I guess it’s necessity is the mother of all invention. You guys are defining that to a T. So in the iron triangle of higher ed success, it is so clear from an accessibility and affordability, I think the University of the People is knocking it out of the park, to use an American baseball reference here. How about the third component of the triangle, which is about outcomes? So this is an area we know, we’ve heard about the MOOCs for almost the last decade, such a compelling story, millions and millions of people taking courses all over the world. But often, with that story comes that the outcomes are not great, let alone the completion of the course or whatever the outcome that they’re expecting to get. How is your people, thinking about outcomes, knowing this is, really, the bedrock that higher education sits on?

Shai Reshef:
So first of all, I would just mention, and I think that it is important to talk for a second about our admission. Our mission is to open the gates to anyone. We tell anyone who has a high school diploma and proficiency in English that you’re welcome to start studying with us. However, the students need to take two courses to demonstrate that you meet our quality, that you have the qualification and the right academic standards to study with us. So you have to take two of our courses and pass them before you are being admitted. It’s great for the students because a lot of students are shocked when they come to us. First of all, it’s online. A lot of people still don’t know what’s online learning; but more than that, a lot of them say, “Oh, tuition-free. I’ll sign up and they will send me the degree by mail.”

Shai Reshef:
Well, that’s not the case. Others, we tell them that it’s 15 to 20 hours a week,” and they say, “Well, if that’s true for others, I can make it in an hour a week.” Well, one hour goes by and they’re out because you can’t make it in an hour and for us, it’s great because we say, “We don’t need to look at your grades. If you meet our courses and it’s still the regular 4-hour courses and you pass them, you meet our standards. So if you pass them, you get credit and move on into the program.” Saying that, over 50% of the students do not make it into these two courses. However, after they become students, over 80% of them continue to second year.

Shai Reshef:
So this is actually, to my knowledge, a great achievement and quite high compared to other online universities or community colleges. So that’s the outcome that we’re looking for. I will just also mention that out of our graduates, we have graduates who work with Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Amazon World Bank. 15% of our graduates continued over the master degree, so we have, actually, quite a success; 92% of our graduates work, so we are very satisfied with our results today. But saying that we are a young university. We are there to keep looking and to ensure that in the future, the results will be as good and maybe, hopefully, even better.

Todd Zipper:
Yeah. So a big part of being a university is being accredited, which you already are. I believe you have national accreditation, but as far as I understand, you’re going for regional accreditation, which is technically, I guess, the next level up, it’s some level of WASC is from Western states. Can you talk a little bit about that, because when you think about accreditation, you’re thinking about accessing financial aid? What is really the motivation behind going to this next level of accreditation, which is probably going to add some of those administrative costs I was talking about earlier?

Shai Reshef:
You’re right about the cost. I think that, well, we are accredited by the DEAC, Distance Education Accreditation Commission and we are extremely satisfied with them. We feel that they do a good job and it’s very important for us to be a great accredited and I think that they help us a lot in improving our quality by meeting their standards and its ongoing process. Saying that, a lot of our students ask us to be regionally accredited as well. We are there for the students. If that’s what the students want, that’s what we do and therefore we decided to pursue regional accreditation as well, and that’s exactly what we are doing. It has nothing to do with the federal.

Shai Reshef:
We originally decided that we don’t want to be a part of Title IV and all the others for the simple reason, we were afraid that the bureaucracy that involved in getting a federal grant will prevent us from being tuition-free. So the last thing I want is, “Okay, let’s get government money to pay for the fact that we have to pay to get this money.” So we decided not to be involved there, even though, I am not sure that in the long run, we won’t be involved because we are growing dramatically. We have a lot of students who need help and it’s one of the main challenges that we have is to have enough scholarships and enough support for our students, so it’s something that we probably will consider in the future again.

Todd Zipper:
Yeah, because the Pell Grants that are based on your costs, you’d be well below that, so it would probably give more people access to the market; really incredible story. So brand is often such an important aspect of higher education, it’s the signaling factor to the employers of, I guess, the capability and competence of a candidate, what do you want the University of the People brand to represent in the eyes of employers and prospective students, right? That is where it needs to click for them to also to continue this scale that you’re experiencing.

Shai Reshef:
It’s a good question. I think that we are the opportunity. We are the university that give opportunity to everyone and we enable them to get what they couldn’t get otherwise. I think that we are talking about our brand, because we open the gates to everyone, we need to show and prove that the fact that we open the gates for everyone does not mean that we do not have the quality. So we have not only that we have the accreditation, we have support from amazing presidents from amazing universities, from NYU to Columbia to Berkeley, to Oxford, McGill, Vassar. I can go on and on. We are partners with quite a few universities.

Shai Reshef:
We are collaborating with Harvard Business School Online. Our students can continue to other universities such as McGill and Edinburgh, which are international and LIU in New York. So we have a partnership and all those show the quality. So when employers look at our graduates and they look at who is involved with the university, they understand about the quality. I think that, as you mentioned at the beginning, we see ourself as that education revolution. We change how higher education is looked at what students pay and what students get. I believe that that’s the opportunity that I’m talking about, yes.

Todd Zipper:
I want to dive into some of these university partnerships because you’ve got these incredible volunteers from some of the best universities in the world and you’ve now partnered with universities. You mentioned Harvard Business School Online. Can you double click there? This collaborating colleges program that you’ve recently joined with some other incredible universities, what are you giving access to your students there?

Shai Reshef:
So it really varies from one university to the other. The collaboration that we have with Harvard Business School enables our students to take three Harvard Business School Online courses at the price that is quite similar to the price that we ask our students to pay, which is amazing. Think about Harvard courses at the price that it’s 150 per course for our students, which is an amazing opportunity for our students. But after taking these three courses, first of all, they come back to us and they get credit. So, and in addition, they get a certificate, which means that our students who participate in Harvard core program come out of their education with a BA from University of the People, three of their courses are Harvard courses, but also with Harvard certificate for the job market. Take McGill, as an example, McGill opened its gates to UO People students from all over the world, especially refugees.

Shai Reshef:
So after two years with us, they complete associate degree with us, then they can transfer with a scholarship to McGill to complete the degree on campus there. I will just give one more example, which is all the way different, is a partnership that we have with Effat University of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It’s a women university and our women students, after two years with us, again, are able to transfer to Effat University if they want to complete a degree on campus and study there. So basically, what we say and I think that they should also mention, the very first agreement that we had was with NYU Abu Dhabi, our best students, after a year with us can transfer to Abu Dhabi with a general scholarship. We are very, very proud to have this agreement because for us, it’s both a letter for our students.

Shai Reshef:
As I said, we open the gates for our students to study with us. Those of them who can excel and go to the best universities of the world or want to study fields that we do not offer, why not? We sign an agreement with LIU, Long Island University, whereas our students, and after two years with us, they study health science with us. They want to become nurses. We don’t have for nursing. They can go there and practice. So we’re giving further opportunities to our studies, but along the way, the fact that those universities decided to partner with us is another sign of our quality. So it goes both ways.

Todd Zipper:
So not only are you disrupting higher ed, you’re also partnering with it the traditional model and helping those universities, LIU you mentioned, where I actually grew up, and that’s going to provide them with students they probably would not have gotten access to because maybe those students would have never started college in the first place, which is incredible.

Shai Reshef:
So two things, first of all, you’re right. We are disrupting in a way that we show that higher education can be accessible and affordable to everyone with the right quality. That does not mean that we think that the old system is obsolete. We believe that the best universities, the research universities should be there and continue being there and they should lead the way and we are there alternative, not for the students. Students who go to Harvard or to McGill or to NYU should continue go to NYU. We are not alternative to NYU. We are alternative for those who have no other alternative and we are opening the gates to those who do not have this opportunity. So we are complimenting them rather than replacing them, and as you said, we’re giving other opportunities to our students, exactly.

Todd Zipper:
So switching gears to the areas of study, right? We’ve been kind of talking about that, but this is ultimately where students get to study. You’ve got business, you’ve got computer science, you’ve got health science and education. Why did you begin with those four disciplines and how do you plan on offering more in the future?

Shai Reshef:
This is a good question. So when we started the university, the idea was that we want to offer the degrees that are most in demand, for the very reason that our students, we realized from day one, that the students who come to us come because they want to have a chance for a better future. As such, we want to offer the degrees that are most in demand to help our students, to help, as such their families and communities and their countries. When we looked at the two degrees that are most in need worldwide, it was education and nursing, well, the different health science professions. The challenge that we had at the very beginning is how do you teach teachers without having local license in every country, because no country let teachers go into the class unless they license them.

Shai Reshef:
We are in no way that we will work on licensing in 200 countries and look at the U.S. and 50 states just in the U.S.. The same issue was in health science. We realized that in order to become a nurse, you need to practice. We cannot have practice to enable our students to practice in 200 countries, so we went to the other two degrees that are most in demand worldwide and offer great jobs to our students, business administration and computer science, associate and bachelor degree. Later on we added the health science and the health science we added only when we realized, “Well, we can’t teach nursing, but there is a huge demand for health science employees,s so let’s educate employees,” and that’s the degree that we developed.

Shai Reshef:
A lot of, by the way, practitioners in developing countries who are defacto nurses and doctors, but do not have the academic background, come to us to get the academic background, but we don’t teach nursing. We teach only health science. Later on, we decided to develop MBA because there was a huge demand among our students. But also, when we realized that, “Yes, we cannot go into teaching, but we can teach a master degree in education,” and we partnered with the IB, the International Baccalaureate. Together, we developed a master in education with their pedagogy, which is, by the way, a great success and used the many countries for either teachers who want to become a headmaster, so just to become more professional, so people who work in the education ministries elsewhere, and in many developing countries as well.

Todd Zipper:
Any other areas on the horizon for you, or are you still working through that?

Shai Reshef:
Well, we have developed associate degree in Arabic, in business administration, in Arabic as well. We were approached by, actually, 125,000 Syrian refugees who knocked on our door to study with us, but could not make it because of the language. We decided, as such, that since we believe that refugees, probably more than any other group of people in the world deserve to get higher education, because we keep thinking about refugees as people who leave their countries, the situation calms down and they come back. They never come back. They stay for generations in exile, many of them in refugee camps for generations. The only way for them to get out is through education. So we said, “Let’s bring education to them,” and we developed a first associate degree in business administration in Arabic and the idea is that they will study two years in Arabic. We also developed ESL, English as a Second Language program.

Shai Reshef:
So while they study in Arabic, they can master the English language. The idea is that after two years, they will integrate with the rest of the world. We believe that it’s important for the refugees to mix with the world, to see that the world that they think of as a bad place is not necessarily bad place. All the people who have these weird ideas about refugees to study with refugees and learn that they are exactly like them. So we hope that after two years, they will integrate with the rest of the world and if not, we just developed and got accreditation for a full BA in Arabic. So for those who will not be able to master the English and will not be able to transfer to study with our global community, they will be able to complete a bachelor degree in business administration in Arabic, so that’s our new program. We are slow in developing new programs because it’s very expensive to develop new programs and we are more efficient by having a few programs, but I do think that we will develop more programs.

Todd Zipper:
Maybe others can step up to the table and help you out there. So let’s stay on this, around the global footprint. So you’re talking about, really, you mentioned serving 200 countries, this is incredible and there’s also a lot of nuances to making this work globally. Obviously, you’re not doing synchronous learning it sounds like, so you don’t have those challenges, but you still have people at different time zones, different cultures. You’re now added Arabic as a second language. So can you talk a little bit more about what you need to do to really manage this global footprint and do you intend to expand beyond, really mostly English, but also Arabic now?

Shai Reshef:
So yes, we have students from 200 countries and they’re working from different time zones. The fact that, first of all, as you said, we are as synchronous, which means that you can come into the classroom any time. Moreover, they do not need to have broadband, so we’re asynchronous and it’s text-based. So that’s how we started by saying it’s all type, no video, no audio. Recently, where we realized that most of our students have broadband, we decided to introduce videos, but it’s optional; it’s not mandatory. So if you have video, go watch Khan Academy, Yale, MIT videos. “If you don’t have the broadband, here’s the text.”

Shai Reshef:
So we try to make it accessible to everybody. What I think the main thing that we developed to accommodate students’ needs is an office of program advising. So every student, after they’ve been accepted to the class, have a program advisor that is with them from the day that they sign up until they graduate. The program advisor is actually there for the students for any issue they have, and talking about different cultures yes, provost. What the hell is provost? How do Americans know what province is? Now, you go outside of the U.S. and nobody knows what it is. You’re talking about probation. You talking about a Proctor exam, just the terminology, “You’re under probation.” So there are so many things that they are getting lost; the technology, “Can I submit my homework late? Why do I need to pay? How do I pay? When do I pay?”

Shai Reshef:
So there are so many questions that they ask. So here it is, here’s your program advisor, any question that you have goes, first of all, to the program advisor. The program advisor knows, most likely the answer, but if he doesn’t know the answer, he knows whom to ask at the university, which, actually, it saves a lot of students because in most cases, they don’t even know whom to ask. On the other hand, it saves us a lot of money because when you start being bombarded, because students tend to send email to every department that might be relevant, you send one email to 50 departments or 20 departments and who’s supposed to answer the question?

Shai Reshef:
Now, I would say also, this is very important to serve the students. We take it as the main mean for us to increase retention. The program advisors are there to encourage the students and every student and every university encounter difficulties. In our case, they are alone. They’re online. We trying to help them. And the program advisors is there to encourage them to come back, to encourage them to do their homework, to give them advice if they take too much courses on themselves and they’re overwhelmed with the amount of work and they don’t do good. We encourage them to drop one course, to withdraw from one course and stay with one course, for example, to do better. So this is one of the case, and, obviously, we try to accommodate different cultures this way. You cannot do it 100%; you can do is as good as you try and we try very hard. We think that, overall, the students show that we’re doing a good job, but you can’t always succeed there.

Todd Zipper:
There. Yeah. Well, I think it’s probably one of the first true global universities, even though it’s based in the U.S.. So you mentioned earlier about the jobs and some of the great companies that your graduates are working for. I noticed on your website, you’ve got corporate partners. You talk about Pfizer and Facebook and Google and more, how do you see University of the People intend to partner more with corporations?

Shai Reshef:
So ,actually, we just opened a corporate office to work more with corporates and the idea is that we have an amazing offer for corporates. They have tons of employees; they need to improve their knowledge; they need to retain them and here we come, tuition-free and we are there to help you to retain your employees by educating them. Obviously, it’s good for the employees to have a better education. They will be more productive. They will be well-rounded thinking individuals sense. It’s good for the companies because they will retain them because the employees will be much more satisfied. So this is the first thing. We can help companies working in the areas where they operate, corporate, social responsibilities, they work in different areas and why not to contribute to the area by helping local people, giving them scholarships? So there are a lot of ways that we can help corporates. We, on the other hand, can give them our graduates. Our graduates are great greatly educated and we have different kinds of graduates. Look at our population of students. So first of all, they are trained to work in teams.

Shai Reshef:
All their education is while working with teams from around the world and this is how corporates work. But if you look at the diversity of our students, this is amazing. All companies today, want to reach diversity, but when you look at our, we are the most diverse university; 30% of our U.S. students are Black. This is compared to 14% nationally; 60% of our students are first-generation students compared to 33% nationally, and 50% of our students are parents compared to 22% nationally. By the way, even our faculty, 30% of our faculty is Black compared to 6% nationally. But when companies look at our diversity, our students are the diversity they are looking at. So we feel that we have a lot to offer corporates and we think that partnership is a no brainer and we feel that we should do much more though. We haven’t approached companies, as you mentioned. We have a few cooperative partners, but not many of them simply because we didn’t have the manpower and we didn’t have the resources to approach companies. Now, we hope that we will be able to do more.

Todd Zipper:
This is a major focus of almost every corporation. I know. So you’re really well positioned there as you mentioned. So before we wrap up, I have to ask you about the scale question, right? So you’re at 65,000 students, but when you think about the world, right, we have billions of people here, and you talked about the 98 million, that, that won’t be able to get access to seats in a class. How big do you think this model can get?

Shai Reshef:
Well, so I’ll start with a very short story that, following the earthquake in Haiti, we committed to take 250 survivors and to teach them, with us for free and I came to Haiti to welcome them. When I came there and I spoke to a few hundreds of potential students, one of them asked me, “So, what’s the future?” My answer, which, only a few weeks later I saw because it was recorded. I didn’t even remember that, but that’s what I said was, “Look, as long as there are people that needs our services, we’re going to continue to grow. We will grow and grow and grow as long as we can maintain the quality, as long as there is need for us, until we wake up one day and realize that others do the same, replicate our model and do the same and all the people in the world have the opportunity ffor higher education. At that point, probably, we’ll go back to sleep and wake up with a new dream. But until then, we will continue to grow.” So I guess that that’s the best answer that I can give you.

Todd Zipper:
Oh, that’s great. So you’ve had such an incredible entrepreneurial experience, this is the latest of. Are there any other innovations in the market that you’re seeing that we should be paying attention to?

Shai Reshef:
I think that, look, I’m in education for over 30 years and for many, many, many years, people believed that technology will change education and it didn’t happen. I think that finally, we get to the point that education will change, the technology will change higher education. So I see how technology is becoming more and more power to fire education. I see videos becoming more important. I see podcasts becoming more important in education and maybe one day, virtual reality will be the replacement of the traditional classes and I can’t wait to see it working. It will be exciting, but I believe that technology is a game changer, even though, and I have to say, I believe that the technology is already there to offer education and that’s what we do. The technology that we use is available for already quite a few years, so I believe that technology is already there to serve all the people who need higher education, but it will do even a better job.

Todd Zipper:
Wonderful. So my last question I ask all my guests, part of what we love about education is that we all have learning champions. Who has been a learning champion for you, and how has that person helped you in your life?

Shai Reshef:
So we started a discussion that I announced the university in January 2009, and then we started teaching in September 2009. The very first day that we started teaching, I saw now your people Facebook page, students from Kenya saying, “Well, I’m a poor student from Kenya, feeling like a rich American students studying in American university.” This is my inspiration.

Todd Zipper:
That’s just absolutely wonderful. Shai, thank you so much for your time and for speaking with me today. What you’re doing, I think, is absolutely game changing and I’m excited to see what new ideas you come up with and how big you can make this concept. So until next time, this has been An Educated Guest.

Shai Reshef:
Thank you so much for inviting me.

Todd Zipper:
In my conversation with Shai Reshef, president of the University of the People, here are five key topics and takeaways on how the University of the People is innovating and disrupting higher education. First, maximizing open source technology and resources to increase access to affordable, quality education across the globe. Second, disrupting the industry with the tuition-free, low cost university model powered by the support of 25,000 volunteers. Third, leveraging peer-to-peer learning and instructor supervision to achieve scale while maintaining course quality and a 14:1 learner to instructor ratio. Four, ensuring learner success through a unique missions model and individual support throughout the learners journey and fifth, collaborating with global universities to provide increased access and pathways to higher education.

Speaker 1:
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