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Democratized Learning: The $2000 Tuition University

We propose a new university model that leverages online material and offline activities.

Photo of Katerina Bohle Carbonell
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Who is the target audience for your idea and how does it reimagine the cost of college?

We target students who are not able to relocate for family, health, work or other reasons. By being a hybrid university we do not have maintenance costs for buildings. By using local experts from industry and academic institutes we are giving the community the opportunity to educate the next generation and engage in real world problem solving. By using online course material we reduce course development costs. We reduce tuition costs by reducing the costs for providing a degree.


Meghan, 20 years old, wakes up every day at 5h30 to get breakfast ready for her daughter and watch lectures for her organizational behavior degree. Before waking up her daughter she posts a comment in the discussion forum. After the school bus picks up her daughter, Meghan takes the bus to her work. On the way she continues to listen to the lectures and uses Evernote to take notes. During her lunch break she checks the discussion board, reading the comments others made. On the way home, she jumps into the discussion. Today her group is meeting at her place in the evening to discuss the material. No need for a baby sitter. For Meghan this is a routine day combining work, life, and education since she joined StartUUp. 

Jon, 18 years old, is a bright kid who always wanted to go to education. in his last year of high school is father got terminally ill. He didn't wanted to spent the few years he still had with his dad far away and StartUUp allowed him to stay at home and get an education. He spends most of his time at home or in the library with fellow students, watching the lectures together and reading the posts. Twice per week he meets his fellow students with a facilitator to discuss the material. 

Sarah, 40 years old, loves research and teaching. But she hates how her teaching is not valued by her employer. She volunteers her time as a facilitator for StartUUp. StartUUP gives her the opportunity to see students grow, help them through challenges. It also brought her closer to her local community, outside the walls of her university. 


Getting a degree in the US is like buying a house: The class of 2015 graduated with on average $35,000 in debts. Even more worryingly 41 % students never complete their degree, leaving with debt but without the credential to get into higher paying jobs. But it is not only students that will crack below the mounting pressure of debts, universities in the US also incur even greater amount of loans to create the “college experience” they believe would attract students. The US higher educational system is not tenable for longer, for students and for universities.

What we need now is a new university model. A model in which students are not overly burdened by the costs of attending university and the costs of running the university is not spiraling upwards. A solution to this problem comes from Africa. Kepler University in Rwanda provides first class US accredited education at a low tuition rate coupled with face-to-face discussion and internships. MIT showed that reverse innovation does not only help create high quality products for the developing world, but those innovations surpass the quality of products sold to individuals in the developed world. Let’s apply this principle and reverse innovate Kepler University to meet the demands of US students. To do this, we drew inspiration not only from Kepler University, but also P2PU’s learning circles and Saylor University.

We will be targeting high school graduates and young adults with jobs. We will be focusing on first generation college students, individuals who do not want to move away from their home location.

Physical location

The university will focus on preparing students for their careers. It will not have a huge sports team or fancy buildings. It will offer a 3-year bachelor degree. In the future we might extend this with a 1-year master degree. This structure has been copied from the European bachelor-master system.  

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The university will be online, but will have offline hubs. These offline hubs will be located where a large number of students live. The location of these hubs can change depending on the student population. The goal is to keep the costs for students low by not having a physical building and by not forcing students to leave home. In that way students do not have to pay for board and we avoid expenses related to maintenance of building. Facilitation for these offline meetings will be done by local members of the community from business and academia. We will rely on voluntary contributions. In return they will gain access to unpaid internship (business and research). The offline meetings will be located held in public libraries, or in organizations with which we’ll collaborate. Collaborators will be companies who can provide at least one room big enough for one group (max 14 students) for one year. To find collaborators we will be teaming with maker spaces and business incubators. These are our first target group as they are already providing an informal learning environment. In addition, we will be consulting with local council and business association to find out which business buildings are not at full capacity. By having students meet in public spaces and inside companies, we will be fostering the attitude that “learning happens everywhere”.

If students are too thinly spread in a geographic area, we will set up less offline meetings, but establish a short residential meeting (2 days) at the beginning, half-way through, and towards the end. 


Active and experiential learning will be the focus of the pedagogy. Learning will happen through methods such as group discussions, simulations, and project-based learning. Students will acquire the theory through online courses. This will be supplemented by offline interaction in their hub. Students are required to be prepared for the offline interaction.

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We will have a core faculty body, composed of domain experts. 50 % of this core faculty body will have to hold a Ph.D. The responsibility of this core body is to a) create program, b) assess effectiveness of the university for students learning, and c) teach graduate courses. They will have min 25 % of their time dedicated to their research. In addition to this core faculty body, we will hire Ph.D. students from other universities to teach undergraduate courses (graduate teaching fellow). These will receive training in teaching and course design. Upon successful completion, they will receive a teaching certificate. All faculty involved in teaching will be regularly observed to ensure teaching quality.

Next to the core group of faculty, and the graduate teaching fellow, we will be collaborating with faculty from local universities and domain experts from the industry. This is akin to the model of the “sharing economy”. The task of preparing individuals for their career” will be shared across community members.

In the first 5 years of the university accreditation will not be sought. The goal is to develop a new business model for universities that can be sustained. Assessing students’ success in terms of knowledge acquisition and job readiness will be part of our yearly evaluation conducted by a group of students, faculty, and business representatives.

The Degree

The degree will have two interconnected tracks: First, soft skills and second technical skills (domain knowledge). This is similar to the program outline of StartUp Institute, Minerva School, Quest University, and certain master programs at Maastricht University. They all realized that soft skills are crucial and need to be integrated. 

Soft skills

We will focus on two soft skills (problem solving and collaboration), because we think they are important for all jobs. This soft track runs in parallel of the technical track. This is done in many other learning settings. Assignments done for the technical track are always also evaluated for the soft skills.  Throughout the program students are paired with one mentor whose responsibility is to guide the student in growing in the soft skills.

Technical skills (domain knowledge) - inspiration from Saylor University, possibly partner with them to support the student's learning. Saylor University offers detailed course descriptions, assignments, and lectures. This can be supplemented using the Learning Circle ToolKit offered by P2P University. 

The domain knowledge students need to acquire will be decomposed into learning objectives. Learning objectives are open-ended statements about what students need to know, but specific about one are (e.g. theory or skill). In the beginning we will rely on experts to determine the set of objectives students need to meet. Over time we will be able to detect a sequence of objectives that lead to a certain performance in the domain and thus will be better able to advise students on how to sequence their learning. We will use machine learning to discover this sequence. Machine learning takes information (ie data) and try to find patterns in it.

Learning objectives are tied to courses. One course can have several learning objectives.  If students can provide proof that they already meet an objective, they will receive full credits for the course (competency-based assessment). Students will have to assess themselves and each other. For each objective they need to create 2 statements: what I/ the student learned/did well and what I/the student should improve.

In the 3rd year students have to spend 6 months working in a company or create their own company. If they choose to create their own company they will have to show a business plan within the first month (e.g. market analysis, risk assessment, competitor analysis, technological requirements etc.)


Students will follow together courses offered by MITs open courseware. These exist for longer and thus we expect this offer to be more stable than MOOC courses. However, this can change if MOOC providers are willing to collaborate. We would like to give admitted students the security of knowing what courses they can take over the next 3 years. Therefore, any collaboration should take this into account. As the interaction will take place between the students offline, courses can be in “archive” status on the platforms. Online collaboration will be done through the P2PU platform.

After successfully completing a course, students will receive a badge showcasing their achievement. This badge will be in the student’s online portfolio. By selecting the badge it will be possible to see a) the learning objective, b) the course taken to fulfill the objective, c) the submitted work for this course, and d) what the student did well and where s/he should improve. The student can make this page public to share it with potential employer.

Offline interaction

A local faculty will facilitate the offline interaction. This person should have advanced knowledge in the field, but a Ph.D is not required. In case no faculty is available, a senior student will be assigned as facilitator. In these groups, students will receive closer “supervision” from online faculty to give them the security that they are learning the correct things.


For admission students need to submit several documents: 1) write a short essay (500 words) about a current event. This will assess their thinking skills and their ability to articulate ideas. 2) Provide a financial budget they plan to adhere to while following the degree. This will assess again their thinking skills, their ability to plan ahead, and (very) basic math skills. 3) The last assignment will be nearly fully open. The only constraint we place is that it needs to embody who they are. We want to see student’s passion, and how they deal with uncertainty. We make it clear that this is an open assignment and everything legal goes.   


A university needs staff. We will need staff who are passionate about teaching. We do not want to forbid staff to conduct research (in our words “be on the path of discovery”), but this needs to be together with students. The university will not be a research university.

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Why $ 2000 ?

The median income in 2015 for a household in which the householder was between 15 – 24 years was $ 34,605. $ 2000 would be around 1 month of income. Students will be allowed to pay in installments, reducing the financial strain. With no expensive text books, and the possibility to live at home, students will have low costs

Financial structure

We will finance our activities from the student tuition, and from consulting services to companies. As our pedagogy will employ project-based learning, we will be inviting companies to provide projects for students. Companies will pay a flat fee for offering problems. Students who are successful at creating a company during their study years are required to pay a short percentage to the university as a way of “paying it forward” for future generations of students. This is similar to the revenue-sharing agreement implemented by Unreasonable University. 

What existing universities could do to lower the costs ?

I think these three steps below can be relatively easy be implemented for universities to lower their costs.

  1. Maybe the least controversial step would be to offer the required foundational courses through MOOCs with an offline assessment. In this way, students do not need to be living near their university of choice. It should be allowed that students take the required courses during high school. It might not reduce tuition costs, but students could save on living costs and maybe even finish their bachelor in 3 instead of 4 years. A very easy way to implement this is for universities to partner with Straighterline. Students can already gain credits with Straigherline for a very low price and transfer those credits to a partner universty. 
  2. PhD students in their 3rd and 4th year should be given responsibility to design and teach bachelor courses. PhDs in their 4th year and above should also be responsible for master courses. A professor and an instructional designer will evaluate the created course. By doing this, the university does not have to compensate the professor for her/his time. As the costs of providing the educational activities that lead to the degree will be reduced, students should be charged a lower tuition. Another advantage is that PhDs will gain experience teaching, better preparing them for a career in academia.
  3. Universities should stop financing sports activities and recreational facilities. Instead, partnerships could be done with local sports clubs and gyms to offer  students access to them. This will be a hugely controversial step. To reduce the outcry by students, universities could make their tuition costs more transparent, providing information about how much of tuition is going to the athletics program.

A more drastic change would require universities to form partnerships. This is already happening for research with faculty from different universities writing articles together. The goal of this partnership is to reduce the living costs of students and the physical space needed to provide education, in turn reducing building costs (maintenance, heating, building new locations). The following steps are partly modeled according to the Dutch valorization procedures.

  1. Universities and industry should decide on a list of areas they consider important for society. These are economic interests (e.g. biotechnology), but also knowledge the society needs to flourish (e.g. history, poetry) whose economic values can be less clear and obvious. 
  2.  Universities apply to be an expert in an area. This gives them exclusive rights to teach in that area. They will also be evaluated on their effectiveness to deliver graduates in that area. They will have to provide online courses free of charge on these areas to students from universities who are experts in other fields. 
  3. Undergraduate courses are taught in a partnership with max 5 universities. Content (e.g. knowledge) is delivered online. Each university can structure the offline discussion to their likening. The assessment will be the same for all students, regardless of their university. Grading of all students will be randomly assigned to the faculty (professors and graduate students) who were involved in the course. 

Idea developed together with Amber Dailey-Hebert

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

Thanks to an interview with P2PU I already know that their concepts of learning circles is successful. They are planning to extend this concept.

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

We need to create a pool of industry experts and people in academia who want to teach. We need companies to provide problems for the project based courses and we need mentors for the internships/startups. Most importantly, we need a pool of student ready for testing. On the financial side, we need help in developing ideas of how to sustain the activities. The idea also needs to be refined, feedback would be very helpful.

This idea emerged from

  • A group brainstorm

Are you interested in the Path to Pitching track we've developed for this challenge?

  • Yes


Join the conversation:

Photo of Denny Wong

Good job in presenting you idea - a complex one into a concise proposition. I believe you are into something interesting - in term of blending on/off line with in person working circle. I believe this is one way forward in the future after e-learning > MOOC > blended learning > what you described.

How would you start build this? In your opinion where would you start? The challenge in such (large scale) system is to start small at first? Or do you see it as a 'big bang' approach, meaning to start 'big' right away? If so, I would be interested to listen to your business model and financial model - in getting such 'new' system in place?

Or are you, expecting existing university or institutions to 'adopt' this approach?

Photo of Katerina Bohle Carbonell

Denny Wong You raise interesting points. I think the safest way forward is to start small and - sort of - local in the northern, midwestern States in the US. We are currently putting a lot of weight on the 'service' revenue stream, the flat fee companies pay for using the students as consultant. I believe if we could get buy-in from incubators (e.g. 1871 in Chicago) we would be able to offer the right environment for students to launch companies. Once their companies create revenues, some of this revenue will go to the university (see for their revenue streaming agreement)

Photo of Denny Wong

Thank you for your reply Katerina. Agreed - small is beautiful and local is meaningful.

The incubator ideas is interesting too - somewhat similar to Rob Han's post having students working on startup projects on and thank your for sharing the unreasonable institute model. This revenue stream - as you might know is a 'risky' one because the success rate of any new venture is often low (ie. - but then again this is exactly what VC - venture capitalist is hedging on.

However, if we can shift the value created from monetary value to 'social impact' - it could change the game. In this case how can we get out of the 'money' game?

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