There was no welcoming party for incoming freshmen when the University of the People offered its inaugural slate of classes last September. Indeed, most students enrolled in the world’s first online, tuition-free university will never meet face to face. But friendships “are already going strong” among learners who live in Colombia, Indonesia, Sudan, and 50 other countries, says University of the People founder Shai Reshef.

With a goal of dramatically increasing access to higher education, the...


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