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The Value in a Free Degree

Ali Patrik Eid, who lives in Jordan, hopes his degree will land him a new job.

WHEN it opened in 2009 to some media fuss, University of the People was a free-culture concept in a competitive, proprietary universe. It charged no tuition and was open to anyone who could do the work. Professors volunteered their time. Now, four years later, the first students are reaching graduation, raising a question no R.O.I. calculator has yet sought to answer: What is a free online degree worth?

Ali Patrik Eid, 33, hopes it can land him a new job. He works for a company that provides evacuations and medical service, based in Jordan. Speaking via Skype from his dining room table as twin 1-year-old daughters squealed beyond a folding screen divider, Mr. Eid said that adding an associate degree in business administration to his résumé had gotten him three job interviews. “I have been trying since forever to arrange an interview,” said Mr. Eid, who will complete a bachelor’s in March. “Once I mentioned I had a degree, I had lots of e-mails.”

Debbie Time, who will get a bachelor’s in business administration in January, hopes to start a jewelry business. Ms. Time, who is 48, works as an administrative assistant at a Florida insurance company. “I don’t want to stay in cubicle nation,” she said, adding that courses taught her how to structure a business, “find a target niche” and, if business flags, how to “figure out which items are losing money.”

Online learning has caught fire since the early days of “distance education,” and massive open online courses have injected technological polish and a hip ethos to Web courses, but University of the People remains the only tuition-free online college granting degrees.

“We are building a model to show that education can be way less expensive than it is right now,” the founder, Shai Reshef, said over black coffee and tuna tartare at a coffee shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

University of the People has an annual budget of $1 million, 14 paid staff members and 300 volunteers. It runs on donations from foundations, including the Hewlett and the Gates foundations and the Carnegie Corporation, plus fees students pay to apply (from $10 to $50) and take exams ($100 each), although waivers are available. Mr. Reshef, an Israeli businessman in the education field, has contributed $3.5 million of his own money.

Curriculum is shaped by unpaid deans with day jobs at New York University and Columbia and is purposefully low tech, using open-source, text-based materials that students access and respond to asynchronously. “We use the simplest technology that is most available,” Mr. Reshef said. A quarter of students don’t have broadband and can’t play video; 6 percent use only mobile devices.

University of the People has not served large numbers. While close to 1,500 students from 137 countries have enrolled since it opened, there are currently only 736 active students. Mr. Eid and Ms. Time are among 17 students on track to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration or computer science within the next year. Another 31 will earn associate’s degrees.

Yet interest is high. More than 44,000 contacted University of the People in the last academic year, and 15,000 more got in touch after Microsoft announced in August that it would provide 1,000 University of the People students in Africa with internships, technical training and mentoring and cover exam fees.

An obvious barrier: University of the People is still working toward accreditation. Russell Poulin, deputy director of research and analysis for Wiche Cooperative for Educational Technologies, who helped draft guidelines for accrediting bodies to judge online programs, says it’s likely the university will show the academic rigor and programmatic coherence needed for accreditation. (Students get written assignments and tests, do open-source reading, and write journals and judge peer writing with instructor oversight.)

The bigger issue, Mr. Poulin said, is how employers react to the online institution (the only real estate is 500 square feet in a Pasadena, Calif., office park). Online education as a whole has made inroads among employers, but “there is still a lot of skepticism,” said Carolin Hagelskamp, director of research for Public Agenda, a nonprofit group that queried 656 employers for a report released in September. Even though 80 percent saw a niche for online learning, especially for older students, 56 percent preferred on-campus degrees. “It doesn’t mean attitudes aren’t changing,” she said.

A mixed response is what Mr. Eid found in his job interviews. The employers had never heard of University of the People and asked about it. Some were “afraid of it being a fraud,” while “others liked the idea” of a free online degree, he said. One “was so amazed about me” working, being a father and “at the same time studying.” He was offered one position but the pay was too low to justify relocating.

“University of the People is a bit of a risk,” said Doug Walters, the transportation coordinator for the Southern York County School District in Glen Rock, Pa. His salary is in the mid-$40,000s. And with a 9-year-old daughter to support and student loans from unfinished degrees at Brigham Young University and Penn State Online, the free tuition appealed. Mr. Walters, now 29, began in fall 2011 and plans to earn a business administration degree in two years so that he can advance in the district. “There is no way I can do that without completing a higher education,” he said.

Will a University of the People degree move him ahead? “We only recognize university programs that are accredited and approved by the PA Department of Education,” said Mr. Walters’s boss, Wayne McCullough, chief financial and operations officer for the district.

Mr. Walters has some time. But Mr. Eid, who just sent out 50 more résumés, is eager for results now.

Mr. Poulin believes that international students like Mr. Eid, who make up 75 percent of those enrolled, may get the greatest benefit. “In many countries,” he said, “having a degree from an American university does have a lot of value to it.”

The University of the People concept — to educate those who don’t otherwise have access — is grand. But finding the sweet spot of access and rigor hasn’t been easy. Dalton Conley, a professor of sociology, medicine and public policy at N.Y.U. who volunteers as dean of arts and sciences, hopes University of the People can “have the reputation CUNY had 50 years ago when poor kids came and did great things.”

Initially, University of the People admitted almost all who applied, but many didn’t speak English well enough to do the work, Mr. Reshef said, including posting on discussion boards and judging peer writing. It has since raised its standards; there are now six required admissions essays, and nonnative speakers must prove proficiency with test scores or pass an English course before they can apply. Acceptance rates have dropped from 99 to 81 percent. Retention rose from 42 percent in 2010 to 81 percent last year.

Two years ago, University of the People also added academic advising, and outreach to students whose grade-point average dropped below 2.0. “We are opening the gates for everyone and we are tuition free — students need this extra support,” Mr. Reshef said.

That’s what Kregg C. Strehorn, associate dean for undergraduate advising and learning at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, noticed when he became a volunteer adviser and professor of introductory sociology. “The diversity is off the charts,” he said. He has students from a dozen countries and five continents in each class. “Many have had no experience with higher education,” he said. They don’t know what a syllabus is or what it means to fulfill degree requirements.

Because few have yet been able to use University of the People as a steppingstone, Joe Jean of Haiti has become its poster boy. Two years ago, Mr. Jean used his 3.5 G.P.A. at University of the People to gain admission and a full ride to N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi, where he is now a sophomore computer science major. (John Sexton, president of N.Y.U., heads Mr. Reshef’s council of advisers.)

For Mr. Jean, 25, whose family subsists on money his mother earns selling juice, education is a life changer. “Now I have a bigger perspective, bigger dreams,” he said, taking a break from a homework assignment writing computer code. At home, he said, “I have a lot of people counting on me.”

Laura Pappano is writer in residence at Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College and author of several books, including “Inside School Turnarounds.”

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