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Now, the intersection of tech and education, the University of the People claims to be the world's first tuition-free, nonprofit online university. It targets poor students around the globe who would otherwise not have access to higher education. Its founders say their mission is unlike any other in the fast-changing world of online schools, but its critics say the idea is flawed and question whether it's sustainable.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez has our story.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Naylea Omayra Villanueva Sanchez, 22, lives on the edge of the Amazon rain forest in Tarapoto, northern Peru.

NAYLEA OMAYRA VILLANUEVA SANCHEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

SANCHEZ: Where I live, there's only jungle, says Naylea. A university education is inaccessible in more ways than one.

Naylea is in a wheelchair, the result of a motorcycle accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. During her recovery, while surfing the Internet, Naylea came upon the University of the People's website and applied for admission. She had to verify she was 18 years old, had finished high school and knew English. She paid no tuition, no book costs, just a onetime $35 application fee. The business administration courses she signed up for were free.

SANCHEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

SANCHEZ: Of course, you see free and right away you're suspicious, says Naylea.

But after reading the university's mission statement, she understood why it was free. She says it's for people like her who don't have the opportunity or the money to attend college. That's the goal, says Shai Reshef, founder of the University of the People.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAI RESHEF: You made it all the way.

SANCHEZ: Reshef runs the University of the People with just two people. There's no campus, no visitors center, or even a sign over the tiny office it rents in a downtown high-rise in Pasadena, California.

RESHEF: And what you see is actually two rooms together because we own only half of this room.

SANCHEZ: Reshef, a short, tanned, middle-aged man, founded the school in 2009. After making millions from several for-profit, online education ventures in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East, he says he realized just how inaccessible higher education is for most people around the world.

RESHEF: Listen. Everyone should be educated. I care about the people who don't have the right for education right now. And they should have the right.

SANCHEZ: Reshef says basing the University of the People in the U.S. was a no-brainer.

RESHEF: Because students from all over the world want an American degree. They want to study, and they want to find a job, and they want their degree to be recognized.

SANCHEZ: Thirteen hundred students from 129 countries are enrolled in the University of the People, mostly from Nigeria, Indonesia, Haiti and the U.S. Some work out of Internet cafes. They download lessons on a thumb drive and take it home to work on. In Amman, Jordan, 33-year-old Ali Patrik M. Eid usually logs on at work late at night.

ALI PATRIK M. EID: Sometimes I take an assignment, read it four, five, 10 times and can't realize what exactly the instructor is talking about.

SANCHEZ: Ali has struggled a bit with English in his business administration courses, but he says his teachers, all retired professors from U.S. institutions, have been patient. There are lots of reading assignments and transcribed lectures to pore over, often followed by lengthy online discussions with classmates from around the world.

But if students are paying little or nothing for all this, can the University of the People grow and survive? The answer in the short-term is no. So starting next month, new students will start paying a $100 fee for every final exam. Even the school's most avid supporters, however, worry about the school's growing operating expenses.

DALTON CONLEY: I have a bunch of concerns that I think we're all still trying to figure out.

SANCHEZ: Dalton Conley is former dean of Social Sciences at New York University. NYU, Yale and Hewlett Packard are partnering with the University of the People. Conley is on loan to help expand course offerings.

Thus far, the university offers only two- and four-year degrees in business administration and computer sciences. An open source consortium provides instructional materials for free on the Internet. Still, fulfilling the University of the People's lofty mission is not cheap, says Conley.

CONLEY: How are we going to make this work while keeping it tuition-free and not having other onerous fees or anything that would at all restrict access to the world's poorest of the poor, yet, at the same time, keep the organization growing? Shai once put it: We're not the future of higher education. We're the last resort.

PHILIP ALTBACH: I think the concept of the University of the People is a nice idea. I think its a bit half-baked at this point.

SANCHEZ: Philip Altbach, head of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, has his doubts.

ALTBACH: The American higher education model has a great reputation, but not all institutions live up to it: some of them online and some of them mucked up with scandals in recent days. How, for example, will you figure out that the admirable woman in Peru is taking the tests herself?

SANCHEZ: Until somebody solves that problem, says Altbach, the credibility of the online degree is suspect.

RESHEF: Many people are still skeptical. It's true.

SANCHEZ: Shai Reshef insists the reason the University of the People will survive is because the demand for a college education at little or no cost is so great.

RESHEF: We're building a model. If we can do it, they can do it for sure. So we're showing that it is possible.

SANCHEZ: And that, says Reshef, is why soon all of higher education will be watching.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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