Shai Reshef, founder and president of University of the People. (TED.com 2014)

After President Obama proposed eliminating tuition for many community college students, we turned to a longtime advocate of making higher education affordable, Shai Reshef, founder and president of University of the People, a nonprofit online university. His TED talk last summer has been viewed by more than a million people.

Q: What did you think of President Obama’s plan to make community college tuition-free? Why?

A: While noting the need for more details, I highly support President Barack Obama’s proposal to make community college available to more Americans. Rising levels of education yield a more skilled workforce, which is a crucial driver of economic growth. I think Obama’s proposal is an effort to revive education as one of the drivers of economic growth, and this is a good thing.

Obama’s proposal to make community college tuition-free nationwide — if Congress and the states were to embrace it — is a step in the right direction to democratizing higher education as it would benefit every student of the two-year colleges.

I heard Obama say, “A quality education should not be a privilege reserved for a few,” which I myself have been saying since founding UoPeople in 2009. Access to education needs to be a right for all.

From the very beginning of UoPeople, we have said that we are building a model for governments to follow, so yes, I can say I would be happy to see the United States go in this direction.

Q: What questions does that raise for you?

My initial questions are:

*Why only two years?

*Who will get it? What about the rest?

*Where will the money come from?

*Why not do the program online to save costs and to enable many more to participate?

To elaborate, Obama’s plan is estimated to cost $60 billion and to serve only part of the student population (9 million students) and only for two years. My question is why not use an online model like University of the People’s, wherein for a fraction of that cost, the entire relevant student population can be served for a full four-year college education, tuition-free?

Q: How did you get the idea for the University of the People?

I spent 20 years of my life in the for-profit education sector. After having established the first online university outside of the U.S., I saw how powerful and revolutionary online learning could be. I realized it had the potential to change the world. Online learning was liberating for so many who couldn’t possibly hold down studying for an academic degree while working at the same time. On the other hand, I realized that earning an online degree was still nothing more than wishful thinking for millions of deserving, qualified students around the world. It was simply too expensive.

I thought about the prohibitive constraints of available seats and cost in higher education. I was struck with the thought that, really, everything that made higher education so expensive was already available online – for free. There is no better purpose for the Internet, in my mind, than sharing knowledge. When you educate one person you can change a life; when you educate many you can change the world. It’s safe to say that in today’s day and age, the barriers to accessing higher education can easily be removed.

I just looked around at what was available and decided I would be the one to put the pieces together. Using open-source technology, Open Educational Resources, peer-to-peer learning, University of the People designed a global university to open the gates to university studies for all qualified high school graduates, despite financial, geographic, societal or personal constraints.

According to UNESCO, by 2025, over 98 million individuals in the world will not be able to attend college because not enough seats will be available. To me, this sounds absurd. Instead of simply building more universities, which will drain resources without meeting the demand for education, University of the People is a model showing how to serve all of these people. If we can do it, other universities and governments can, too.

Q: What are the limitations of that model?

Studying online is very interactive, and fulfilling, yet very intensive and requires a lot of self-motivation and discipline. It is harder than traditional classroom settings and as such, some might find the model very challenging. While the interaction between the students can be very intense online, some prefer face-to-face interaction, of the traditional way. Saying that, it is clear that for students who cannot access traditional university, this option is a great one. UoPeople is the world’s first nonprofit, tuition-free, accredited online university.

Q: Do you find people are skeptical of your idea?

At the beginning, because of our unique model, people were skeptical, particularly regarding whether we would get accreditation and whether we were financially sustainable. However, to my pleasant and humble surprise, no sooner had I announced the opening of the university in 2009 than I was promptly joined by thousands of dedicated volunteers around the world (numbering over 3,000 today), who generously stepped forward and wanted to help with the mission. These people have made the idea come true.

Whether it’s steering the academic direction, creating and instructing courses, or mentoring students – volunteers are the backbone of UoPeople’s accelerated growth (we now have enrolled students from over 150 countries) and without them, we would not be where we are today.

Our volunteers come with a variety of backgrounds and levels of expertise, with many hailing from some of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, such as Harvard, Berkeley, Yale, NYU, Oxford and others.

I think also achieving accreditation was for us our biggest milestone and it went a long way in removing whatever skepticism people may have had.

The overwhelming reaction has been and still is very supportive.

(This post has been lightly edited for length.)