The Disruptors: University Of The People

There are three main barriers to higher education, says Shai Reshef. “University of the People,” which he founded, was born to help students overcome them all.

UoPeople is an online, tuition-free nonprofit university, “an alternative that will disrupt the current education system and open the gates to higher education for every qualified student regardless of what they earn, where they live, or what society says about them,” Reshef says. Its purpose is to help students jump three hurdles: financial — college can be expensive; cultural — many contend with gender and racial obstacles in their communities, and physical — brick-and-mortar universities simply lack the space to accept everyone who applies or wants to attend.

Universities “cannot accept everybody,” Reshef says, and UoPeople fills the vacuum left by a higher education system that has failed millions of qualified students who want to study but don’t have access.


UoPeople currently has more than 44,000 students across the globe

Sara Merlino was one of those students. UoPeople opened up a bright new future for the 38-year-old mother of two from Watertown, Wisconsin, who says her MBA degree has made all the difference.

“I was homeless, had kids early on, and born into a low-income family,” she says. “I was in a crippling amount of debt; student loans and medical bills, and in some pretty dark places.”

Working in the restaurant business, Merlino wanted an MBA as a competitive edge, to stand out among a crowd of job seekers with bachelor’s degrees. “Everyone around me in the restaurant business had a bachelor’s degree — I wanted an MBA,” she tells Poets&Quants. “I chose this university because of my busy life and I didn’t have extra money to spend. It was convenient and allowed me to study on a flexible schedule.”

When she explored MBA program options, Merlino was attracted to the fact that UoPeople was a nonprofit, and she felt low pressure to enroll. In her experience, for-profit universities were a bit pushier. She earned her MBA and fulfilled her goal of promotion to restaurant manager, where she repaid her debt and built up her credit score. Shortly after her promotion, she was offered a position at Amazon in logistics and delivery operations. She happily accepted, has been promoted, and is currently up for promotion again despite only being with the company for two years.

“I now have an excess of things that I don’t need,” Merlino says. “I have a car that I drive around for fun. I am able to donate money because I have money to donate, which is the most humbling experience. I went from homeless to homeowner, and I did that all by working and putting in the hours at the university. Now I work for a large organization. I was promoted once already and I’m on track to be promoted again. I would one hundred percent recommend this university to every person.”


Just about everyone who has attended UoPeople agrees: the school boasts a 97% approval rating among alumni. The school has an 86% retention rate between first and second year, and graduates have gone on to work for Dell, Wells Fargo, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, and, like Merlino, Amazon. Faculty include academic leaders from Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Yale, Duke, Oxford, and other elite institutions. 

Merlino finished her degree in just under two years. She says the best thing about UoPeople is not its cost — the estimated price tag for an MBA is just under $3,000 — but its accessibility to students around the world. Merlino and her international peers studied together and worked on group assignments where everyone brought unique perspectives; they often shared remarkable stories of overcoming difficult life situations — unique situations, but relatable for Merlino, because like her peers she completed the degree despite a multitude of external hardships.

But Merlino’s story is extra inspiring — how else to explain why she was offered a spot in a promotional video series produced by UoPeople on YouTube?

“I loved being a part of this video,” she says. “I felt very special. People have seen me in this video on Amazon and have reached out to me asking about the university, whether it was legitimate or not. I encouraged them to apply, and they did.

“To have people reach out and want to change their life because of my experience, I can’t begin to tell you. That was the most fulfilling thing I think I have ever encountered.” 


Launching UoPeople in 2009, Shai Reshef and his team toiled quietly for five years until the New York Times wrote about the university’s accreditation from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. The day after the Times story ran, Reshef says, “I received hundreds of emails from professors who wanted help in this mission and volunteer their time to students. We started with 500 students and we double in size every year.”

UoPeople, which offers an MBA, BBA, and other degrees, now has more than 44,000 students.

It wasn’t always Reshef’s dream to start an online university. In fact, he was on quite a different path, studying Chinese politics at the University of Michigan. He acquired business skills from professionals around him during his time at university and in his post-college career, working in for-profit education for 20 years.

Reshef’s focus began to shift to nonprofit education when he saw how powerful online learning could be. He strategized and envisioned ideas for how higher education could be accessible to all, especially the underserved. And over time, he designed a remarkable solution: an “education revolution,” available to anyone in the world.

“University was wishful thinking for most,” he tells P&Q. “And I also noticed that everything used in university could be open-sourced. Content is put online for free. Then I discovered there were websites where professors volunteer their time and help students with their homework for free. I put these together. Open-sourced technology, open educational resources, and volunteering professors — that’s a free university!”

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.