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Will University of the People Endure for the People?

Will University of the People Endure for the People?

Inside Higher Ed

Susan D’Agostino
March 15, 2023
When the Taliban banned women from pursuing higher education, they did not simultaneously extinguish half their citizens’ educational ambitions. That’s why Saleema, a young Afghan woman studying at University of the People, now presents as Madison from California in her online Principles of Business Management course. (All details except the student’s gender and institution have been changed to protect her identity.)
Saleema is one of more than 126,000 students, including nearly 17,000 refugees, studying at this tuition-free, nonprofit online university with an all-volunteer faculty. The students hail from the United States, Kenya, Nigeria, Syria and more than 200 other countries. Most are down on their luck due to geographic, economic or political circumstances—or all of the above. Some, for example, are former wards of the state or undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Others have fled wars in Syria or Ukraine. Still others are climate refugees in search of land that supports human life. Half are nonwhite, and most (60 percent) are the first in their families to attend college. Nearly a third (30 percent) of the faculty is Black, according to the institution.
“There are 100 million students worldwide without available seats in existing universities,” Shai Reshef, president of University of the People, said, adding that he hopes to offer a model that others might emulate. “I really hope that I am not the one to serve them all.” Nonetheless, he has promised the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that UoPeople—as the institution calls itself—will educate 25,000 refugees by 2030, a goal Reshef expects to accomplish early.
But making tangible progress in delivering higher education to qualified learners facing some of the world’s most challenging geographic, financial or societal problems is a nontrivial proposition. Though UoPeople appears to be the first to attempt to do so on such a breathtaking scale, it has struggled to establish itself as a peer of other large, accredited online institutions such as Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University.
That may change—or not—depending on the outcome of UoPeople’s bid for accreditation from the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), whose decision is expected this month. The university has been accredited since 2013 by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, which has been ahead of other accreditors in recognizing and supporting more-experimental institutions. UoPeople has sought accreditation from WSCUC because it is one of the seven regionally focused accreditors, which have traditionally been seen as the gold standard in higher education. (Note: This article has been updated to note that UofPeople is already accredited.)
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