The Spider-Man Problem

My Chronicle column this month is about the University of the People, a tuition-free online institution that enrolled its first class of students in 2009. Founded by an entrepreneur named Shai Reshef, who made millions in the for-profit higher-education business overseas, UoPeople was created to, as Reshef puts it, “make peace closer.”

Most of UoPeople’s students live outside of the United States in places where poverty, economic and political turmoil, lack of infrastructure, ethnic and gender discrimination, and myriad other factors make access to traditional higher education impossible. The university keeps access open, institutional costs low, and tuition free by relying on inexpensive, reliable technology, the vast and growing troves of open educational resources, a peer-to-peer learning model, and volunteers who help design curricula and course structures.

UoPeople is currently seeking accreditation, and it will be interesting to see how accrediting bodies that have recently seen fit to endorse all manner of profit-hungry online higher-education corporations will treat a tuition-free nonprofit endorsed by universities like New York University and dedicated to serving low-income students across the globe.

Reshef launched UoPeople with $1 million of his own money and a few million more in donations. Meanwhile:

There are numerous American colleges and universities now sitting on multibillion-dollar endowments that grew significantly in part because of government tax breaks for charitable donations and capital gains. They have globally recognized brands that are worth billions more, names so powerful that students from the other side of the world are magnetically attracted to these institutions. They have accumulated the brightest scholars and students, many of whom loudly and publicly express their concerns about global-economic injustice.

Yet what exactly are these institutions doing to redress those injustices with the service they are built to provide­—higher education? In most cases, virtually nothing. John Sexton, the president of NYU, appears to be one of the elite higher-education leaders who most understands what’s at stake: He has created a groundbreaking new NYU campus in Abu Dhabi and is looking to expand into China next. His enthusiasm for the UoPeople is no surprise. Nor is the presence of other NYU administrators in UoPeople leadership roles. Yale University has led the way in providing open-education resources, such as free, high-quality lecture videos, as have universities including Carnegie Mellon and MIT.

But those institutions are the exceptions. Harvard has made back some of the fortune it lost in the Wall Street casino, but it seems to have no inclination to use that money to educate more students. Undergraduates at the University of California at Berkeley can minor in global poverty, but Berkeley isn’t using newly available online-learning tools to actually reduce global poverty by helping impoverished students earn college degrees. And while some institutions are publishing open-education resources, they aren’t offering degrees to match.

It’s easy to forget that America’s elite colleges weren’t always fantastically wealthy global titans. Harvard’s been around forever, but it sometimes had trouble filling out a class before World War II. Stanford didn’t became Stanford until the federal government flooded California with Cold War research money. But they got there first; brand names are immensely valuable; and there’s nothing like an institution that counts its age in centuries for taking advantage of compound interest.

With this relatively new great power comes great responsibility. And at the same time that various external factors have allowed some institutions to hoard vast quantities of human, financial, and reputational resources, technology has made it possible to reach out and help people all over the world with higher education on a scale and at a cost scarcely imaginable when the great American higher-education fortunes were being built.

$1 million is (I assume) still a substantial amount of money for someone like Shai Reshef. It’s also what the Harvard endowment earned about every three hours during the last fiscal year. At some point—and I would argue we are there already—the failure to use that money to help more people earn college degrees becomes morally outrageous.

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