Every year in Nigeria, roughly 1.5 million students would like to go on to college, but because of limited university space, only a few hundred thousand can. That means some 80 percent of Nigerians hoping to pursue higher education are simply out of luck. Enter Shai Reshef, an Israeli-born entrepreneur whose online education NGO, University of the People, promises to grant bachelor's degrees to the poor around the world -- essentially tuition-free. Reshef's idea piggybacks on the growing migration of world-class university lectures to the Internet, where students from any country can now have access to the best international minds and at least a virtual slice of the Ivy League educations that for so long were the preserve of a small elite. But his project goes a step further, offering a full, four-year college education to "anyone who speaks English and has an Internet connection," as he told the New York Times. His audacious goal is nothing less than to change how the world learns.
Reshef, who made his fortune in for-profit supplementary education, does not draw a salary from the university, which has only 10 paid employees; the professors are all volunteers, many from top universities around the world. Although 1,500 students in 135 countries have been admitted to University of the People, which Reshef founded in 2009, the program is still in the process of applying for accreditation from the U.S. government. But partnerships with heavyweights like Yale Law School, New York University, the Gates Foundation, and the Clinton Global Initiative hint at the outsized impact his idea is likely to have on the world of higher ed. Reshef says University of the People plans to increase enrollment to 5,000 students by 2015 -- and then grow indefinitely. With 3,000 volunteers now working toward that goal, "we don't know what to do with them," Reshef recently told the Washington Post.Reading list: Woman Flees Tidings, by David Grossman; Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman; The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, by Ben Wildavsky. Best idea: Using the goodwill of educators in developed countries to educate students in developing countries. Worst idea: To attack Iran.
Note: This profile has been updated to reflect University of the People's most recent enrollment and employee numbers.
Since 1980, tuition increases at U.S. universities have outpaced the consumer price index, inflation, and even the housing bubble that precipitated the current financial crisis. But with the arrival of companies like Coursera, an online educational consortium founded by Stanford University computer scientists Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, higher ed is reaching far beyond the privileged few in the ivory tower. Through Coursera, anybody with an Internet connection and the desire to learn can log on and tune in to courses at the world's leading research universities -- and for now at least, it's free. "We have the incredible opportunity to make education what it should be," Koller and Ng write, "a fundamental human right."
Several similar programs offering "massive open online courses," or MOOCs -- most prominently Sebastian Thrun's (No. 4) Udacity and edX, a Harvard-MIT joint venture -- have helped online education flourish in recent years. Coursera alone is partnered with more than 30 brick-and-mortar universities, including Stanford, the University of Michigan, and Princeton University, and it offers a wide range of courses in engineering, computer science, math, and, increasingly, the humanities. As of August, it had enrolled more than 1 million students from 196 countries. The for-profit tech company has no immediate plans to offer degrees, but its course-by-course certification scheme is already advancing students' careers. This year, for instance, a 22-year-old computer science student from Kazakhstan scored a job at Twitter -- after taking an artificial intelligence course at Stanford through Coursera.
KOLLER Reading list: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman; A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini; Night, by Elie Wiesel. Best idea: Increasing U.S. efforts in green energy. Worst idea: Republican attempts to cut support for family planning. American decline or American renewal? Neither. More Europe or less? Less. To tweet or not to tweet? To tweet selectively.
NG Reading list: The Essential Drucker, by Peter Drucker; Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson; In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, by Michael Pollan. Best idea: More Pell grants. Students should not have to choose between paying for college and paying for groceries. Worst idea: Ouster of University of Virginia president. American decline or American renewal? Renewal. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Tweet, and use hashtags wisely.