After three months of studying at Damascus University in Syria, Omar Alhalabi's life was uprooted.
It was 2012 and the university had become a stronghold for the military. The Syrian civil war had begun a year earlier. Despite finishing high school at the top of his class and receiving a scholarship to attend the university and study computer science, Alhalabi and his family fled to Turkey.
He found employment with a nongovernmental organization in information technology, with a steady income to support his mother, father, three brothers and wife. But Alhalabi knew that if he ever wanted a better position or career, he would need a degree.
"I started to search for a university," he said, adding that he started multiple online courses. "I found several problems while looking. You don't know where they are placed, or whether they are accredited. That's one of the main problems, and most of them are very expensive."
But it was a TED talk by University of the People founder Shai Reshef that caught Alhalabi's attention.
"The president was talking about investing in people and providing high education for all people and that encouraged me," he said. In particular, Alhalabi was drawn to the interaction between instructors and students and the challenging course work.
He's exactly the type of student that University of the People is trying to reach out to and help. Especially now, as the nonprofit, tuition-free, online and accredited institution finds itself wanting to reach more people and help refugees and immigrants in particular. University of the People is unique in its approach to education. Instructors volunteer their services, there's a mix of peer-based learning and collaboration, and they use only open learning resources.
"Obviously refugees more than anyone in the world deserve our services. We tend to think that being a refugee is a temporary situation. There's a crisis in your country. You leave and when it's over you go back, but this is hardly ever the case because the refugees never go back to their countries. They stay in exile," Reshef said.
He points to reports from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which state that at least three million people have fled Syria since 2011.
"And 300,000 out of the three million are students who left their universities and have very little alternatives," Reshef said. "The only way for them to resume their life and have a better chance for a better future is if they're educated. They're more likely to find a job and be mobile, move to another country and resume their life."
Although the university is tuition-free, students do have to pay $100 per end-of-course exam. So a bachelor's degree would cost a student $4,000 after four years and an associate degree $2,000.
"If they can't afford that we have scholarships. The idea is we have nobody that will be left behind for financial reasons," Reshef said.
In the six years since University of the People was established, that idea and mission have taken off. After achieving accreditation a year ago, University of the People has seen interest in the degree programs skyrocket. Currently they have about 300 students waiting for scholarships to attend the online institution, Reshef said.
The university enrolls about 2,000 students and has a 79 percent first-year-to-second-year retention rate for its bachelor's degree program and 86 percent retention for the associate degree program, according to the 2014 annual report. Last year the university admitted 503 students, compared to 301 the prior year, according to U of the People statistics.
So far, the university enrolls about 100 refugees from across the globe, Reshef said.
Because of the need to help these students in particular, Reshef said the university developed a special policy to help refugees overcome the issue of not having the proper documents or forms needed to enroll in courses. The university was able to get the endorsement of accreditors for a special process for refugees and asylum seekers to enroll, he said. That process allows students to submit their refugee permit in lieu of official school transcripts and high school diplomas if the latter can't be obtained. They must also submit an affidavit that details their previous studies and institution. If a student doesn't have a refugee permit, they can submit an asylum seeker's permit or written certification from an established aid organization.
But the other major component of the university has been the appeal of forgoing tuition.
Reshef said about one-third of the university's U.S. students are enrolling with student debt from a previous institution.
"Education should become a right and not a privilege, and the cost of higher education in the U.S. got to the point where a lot of people cannot afford it," Reshef said.
Doug Walters, 30, from Pennsylvania was drawn to attending the university because of the low cost and his desire to achieve a higher education. He already had experience with an online college, as well as the financial issues that can come along with pursuing a degree.
He enrolled in World Campus, the online version of Pennsylvania State University, for psychology. But in 2010, he took a leave of absence to run for a local political office. He eventually dropped out of the program after two years and with about $20,000 in student debt. That debt was incurred even with tuition assistance from his employer at the time.
"The idea still weighed on me," he said. "I really need to get a degree if I want to leave where I was or get promoted."
Thinking the tuition-free claim by University of the People as "too good to be true," Walters said he decided to apply after seeing the institution receive donations and the endorsement of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Hewlett-Packard.
Walters, who was admitted in 2012, is grandfathered into not having to pay for exams. He also learned despite underestimating the quality of the work, he wasn't going to be able to coast through the program. "I have to put some real effort in," he said.
Reshef is hopeful other universities and colleges, especially those that cater to low-income populations, will consider the example University of the People has set for providing higher education.
The next big marker for University of the People is reaching financial sustainability at some point in 2016.
"This is an extremely important milestone for us," Reshef said. "We want to show the world that a tuition-free university can be sustainable."
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