At a time when top national universities charge $50,000 a year in tuition and living expenses, University of the People represents quite an anomaly.

The Pasadena, Calif., nonprofit university offers college coursework to about 1,000 students worldwide essentially for free. The only charge is a one-time application fee of $10 to $50, which varies according to the comparative wealth of the student’s home nation.

Professors and deans donate their labors. Founder Shai Reshef has just two paid academic employees. Students access and download assignments online. Class discussions take place in old-fashioned text-based chat rooms, which enable students to participate on the most marginal of computers.

“The idea is to open the gate for anyone who wants to study,” Reshef said during a visit to The Washington Post.

Founded in 2009, University of the People claims to be the world’s first tuition-free online university “dedicated to the global advancement and democratization of higher education”. The institution exploits the growing reach and falling cost of online study.

Some volunteer administrators and faculty come from Columbia, NYU and other prestigious universities, drawn, Reshef said, by the potentially transformational power of a free, online, global university. Formal partners include Yale Law School; NYU plans to offer some of Reshef’s students transfer to its campus in Abu Dhabi.

The biggest drawback to Reshef’s school is that it lacks accreditation. There’s little hope for his students to transfer their credits to any other university until it gains accreditation. Reshef says he’s working with an as-yet-unnamed accreditor.

The potential customer base is vast: students around the world who lack the funds for university study, or from places where there are no universities, as well as women who are barred from higher education for cultural reasons.

To date, about 30,000 people have applied to the school, Reshef said. Only 1,000 have been met the school’s two comparatively modest admission criteria: every student must have a high school diploma and English proficiency.

Current students come from 115 nations. The United States and Indonesia are best represented (being the third and fourth most populous nations), along with parts of the Middle East and Africa.

Reshef says he has a corps of more than 2,000 volunteer professors, most of whom don’t yet have anything to do. Faculty who teach courses are paid a token honorarium of a few hundred dollars per course. Reshef says he is eager to enroll more students.

The university offers courses in just two areas, business administration and computer science, chosen because they are in the most demand globally and because they are “culturally neutral,” taught in essentially the same way everywhere, he said.

Educating students is only half of the school’s mission, he said: just as important is “broadening their mind, opening them up to the world,” by enabling interaction among students from several different nations in a single chat group.

Reshef, an Israeli entrepreneur, says he draws no salary and is, in fact, among the university’s major donors, giving back some of the wealth he amassed as a for-profit higher education executive in previous decades. He sold his Kidum Group in 2005 to Kaplan, part of The Washington Post Co.

He plans to phase in a nominal fee next year to cover the cost of processing course exams. This, too, will be on a sliding scale according to each student’s ability to pay. It will bring the total expense for a four-year education to about $350 for someone in a developing nation, and to something under $4,000 for more prosperous students.

Reshef contends there is no potential limit on enrollment.

“We have 2,000 volunteers,” he said. “We don’t know what to do with them.”