The Metropolitan Industrial Park outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contains forty-seven nearly identical tin buildings, each the size of an airplane hangar. Most house offices, factories, or non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but one is home to Centre de Formation Technique et Professionnelle, or Haiti Tec, a training center where about a thousand students attend daily sessions to improve their job skills.
One day last spring, a group of about thirty of those students, all professionally dressed and mostly men, gathered in a low-ceilinged, windowless room to watch a video and PowerPoint presentation about a new, all-online college: the University of the People. The president and founder, Shai Reshef, explained that students could enroll at the University of the People but take classes at different locations nearby, potentially even right there at Haiti Tec. And the best part? They could earn an associate's or bachelor's degree, all for free.
Reshef's twenty-minute presentation felt a little like a sales pitch, as might be expected from someone who made his fortune selling education technology to colleges and universities worldwide, but his underlying message was earnest. Reshef, an Israeli-born entrepreneur, launched the University of the People--or UoPeople, as it's called--in 2009 as the world's first open-access, nonprofit, all-online college designed specifically to serve poor students in developing countries. UoPeople, he told me, was his chance to "give back."
Based on the radical idea that most poor students don't need--and can't afford--a traditional college education, UoPeople does not try to emulate the infrastructure of traditional institutions. Instead, it provides the lowest-cost, barest-bones degree program possible and, in turn, charges its students little or nothing to attend.
By many measures, UoPeople is already a major success. Since its launch four years ago, it has attracted both accolades and grant money from some of the biggest players in the development and philanthropy worlds, including the JW & HM Goodman Family Foundation, Google Grants, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Intel Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Passport Capital Foundation, and the United Nations (UN). Those grants help to underwrite UoPeople's 1,500 students, who hail from 136 countries, including Nigeria, Mexico, and Indonesia. Most of those students pay no tuition for classes, contributing only about $100 to take end-of-course exams. An associate's degree ends up costing students about $2,000 total, while a bachelor's is roughly twice that. In Haiti, where the program is subsidized in full by philanthropic organizations including the UN, UNESCO, and the Clinton Global Initiative, a degree costs nothing at all.
In the past couple of years the international development community has showered UoPeople with praise. In 2012, a program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also funds UoPeople, described it...