New School Tuition: $0.00

Times are tough for college students. Annual tuition fee increases continue at a blistering pace and pinch our wallets tighter than ever. The economy is sluggish and the cost of living is skyrocketing. Loans still impose heavy financial burdens on their recipients, grant money is scarce and scholarships are as competitive as they’ve ever been. So what’s an aspiring scholar to do (besides live solely on cheaply processed junk food)?

Get a college education for free, of course  — no strings attached.

Though the idea sounds too good to be true, cash-strapped students can rejoice in the establishment of the University of the People (UoP), the world’s first tuition-free online academic institution. Founded in May 2009, the UoP is the brainchild of educational entrepreneur Shai Reshef and is run in conjunction with the United Nations Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technology and Development (GAID).

The premise behind the University of the People is that education should be free — meaning that information is the right of all individuals. In particular, Reshef’s vision is for UoP to offer all students equitable access to higher education despite the disparities in their location, finances, gender, culture or race. Though students do have to pay application and examination processing fees (between $15 to $50 and $10 to $100, respectively), these expenditures are nominal and one-time-only. Subsequently, students are not charged for taking classes through the UoP or using its course materials.

The idea behind an open path to educational opportunities and resources is not a new one. In fact, numerous universities have gone so far as to offer free course lectures for download on iTunes, a novel concept pioneered by Stanford University. However, none have made their course offerings accessible to the extent that UoP has (a reality made possible by the university’s donation-funded budget, with Reshef’s gift of $1 million being the largest gift thus far).

Which begs the question: how will the UoP service its students on a relatively limited budget? Reshef’s solution is both simple and innovative in its reasoning: use technology. For instance, Reshef is utilizing the course management system Moodle, open educational resources and social networking as the university’s model. On another level, peer-to-peer learning will also factor in immensely to ensure that students receive personalized attention.

No matter how many students seek entrance into the university, though, the UoPs limited course offerings constrain the number of students the school can accommodate. UoP currently only offers two fully operational programs in computer science and business administration. But don’t fret; the university’s selection of programs is slated to expand substantially once enrollment numbers pick up.

So far, UoP has accepted 450 students from 87 countries around the globe. In the long term, the university’s sustainability is contingent upon the year-to-year enrollment of 15,000 students — a realistic number considering that the school is recruiting worldwide.

But just because the education is free doesn’t mean that it is being administrated by second-rate academics. UoP’s administrative staff boasts a big name lineup: Provost Dr. Harris Cohen of Columbia University, Department of Computer Science Chair D. Alexander Tuzhilin of NYU, Department of Business Administration Chair Dr. Russell S. Winer of NYU, and Associate Dean of General Studies Dr. Ruth Yakir of Kibbutzim College.

Despite the academic powerhouses behind the UoP’s administration, however, there are obviously certain caveats for students choosing to attend it. Compared to that of a more conventional and reputable school, a UoP degree may not hold as much clout in the eyes of employers. Students also don’t get to immerse themselves in the holistic college lifestyle that is defined by school wide events, sports competitions and extracurricular activities. And dare I suggest some students actually like going to class and listening to live lectures (blasphemy, I know)?

But all this does not detract from the UoP’s potential to reshape the landscape of higher education. After all, if a nonprofit institution can provide a quality education on a relatively low budget, this speaks volumes about the manner in which higher-priced schools administer their programs. There is no reason why colleges can’t turn to more efficient and cost-effective methods of engaging students in the classroom in the same way that the UoP does. Open courseware may one day supplant exorbitantly priced textbooks and expenditures on educational resources may one day take precedence over facility construction spending.

Because when stripped to the core, the heart of a university is not comprised of its lavish facilities and amenities, but of its ability to nurture the minds of its students. It is this unadulterated spirit of learning that is so often lost on our universities — one that the UoP is trying to instill in the global community. In the midst of its incessant fee hikes and ever-diminishing resources, perhaps the University of California would do well to pay attention.