A free online university staffed by volunteer professors won something of an endorsement Wednesday from New York University, with the announcement of a formal partnership between the two institutions that is meant to steer students to NYU’s campus in Abu Dhabi.
The memorandum of understanding signed by the institutions means little in practical terms—no money changed hands, and officials were unable to describe any concrete work that will be done together as a result of the partnership. But the unusual online university touted the arrangement as a mark that it has won support from traditional higher education, even though it lacks formal accreditation.
“The fact that we have this agreement adds to our position as a good place to be,” said Shai Reshef, an Israeli entrepreneur who founded University of the People, in an interview. “It shows a belief or understanding that there must be alternatives to the existing higher education in terms of price.”
University of the People accepts only about 100 students per term, and its leaders say that none of them can afford traditional higher education—especially not from NYU, which at about $53,000 a year is one of the most expensive in the United States. But the deal is meant to encourage students at University of the People to apply to NYU’s new campus in the Middle East, which offers unusually generous financial aid for needy students, after they have proven their academic performance at the upstart online university.
“We will be a kind of a funnel to bring those extremely talented youth to study with NYU Abu Dhabi,” Mr. Reshef said, noting that after one year at the free online institution, high-achieving students will be encouraged to apply to the NYU campus. “We open the gates for people who previously had no way of getting into a university.”
The students will face the same admissions standards as anyone else applying to NYU’s global campus, however, and students from the University of the People could already have tried for a spot at NYU, even before the deal was struck.
The partnership between the institutions started when NYU’s president, John Sexton, spoke on a panel with Mr. Reshef at the Clinton Global Initiative, a conference established by former President Bill Clinton. “We admire that UoPeople is seeking to bring higher education to so many of the world’s disadvantaged,” Mr. Sexton said in a statement.
More concrete support comes from several NYU professors and administrators, who already serve key volunteer roles at University of the People. For instance, Alexander S. Tuzhilin, a professor of information systems at NYU’s business school, is chairman of the University of the People’s computer-science department.
Yale University also has a research partnership with University of the People, though that one involves research on the online university’s business model.