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The market of online education is heavily influenced by large scale massive open online course (MOOC) players like Coursera, which directs 22 million learners, and edX, which leads 9.3 million in the pursuit of education. But boutique education providers are emerging, tailoring their online education to fill niches and address individualized needs.

And not unlike the confrontations between small stores and large big box retailers, these new online education platforms need to compete on cost and relevancy while carving out a way to differentiate themselves in the growing marketplace.

The University of the People (UoPeople), based out of Pasadena, California, bills itself as a tuition free online university and is making headway in the online education space. Currently, the platform serves 180 countries, offers accredited degrees, and works to differentiate itself from the masses. Shai Reshef, president of UoPeople, says, “I like the MOOCs and I think distributing the knowledge worldwide is a great usage of the internet. But we are very different from the MOOCs.”

Reshef stresses that UoPeople is a university, which means that students need to apply, be accepted, follow a curriculum and maintain a minimum grade point average. Through this process, students eventually earn an accredited associate or bachelor’s degree in business administration, computer science or health science or an MBA.

Perhaps UoPeople’s most remarkable trait is that only 20 to 30 students are enrolled in each course. This small class size fosters student interaction and provides a network of personal support—both of which are important and rare in broad based online curriculum. In fact, Reshef finds that his educational platform’s incorporation of this support scaffolding is about as opposite from the mass educational offerings as possible. “MOOCs have about 5% retention and we have about 95% retention,” says Reshef.

Something is clearly working and catching on as UoPeople has grown over 500% in Asia since 2014 with Pakistan, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and China accounting for some of the strongest growth markets. Although the growth measures are significant, UoPeople currently only serves 6,000 total students with 902 in Asia, which equates it to being similar to a street vender compared to a multi-national conglomerate. Regardless, the platform is reinstalling the virtues of small classroom education while providing degrees that serve a wide range of the global student body.

“I didn’t think I would have any opportunity at a Vietnamese university,” says Tam Le, 34, a stay-at-home mother in Da Nang, Vietnam. Le is now an online education student working toward her bachelor’s degree in business administration at UoPeople. Talking to her via Skype while her six-year-old son plays in the background, Le says, “Our local university is strict with their entrance exams. For someone like me, who has been out of education for 10 years, it is impossible to get back to the circle of knowledge that they are testing.”

Because of Le’s current coursework and experiences she now says that she has a plan to start her own business, but Le feels the biggest payoff of the curriculum is her increased personal confidence. “Since I got married, I stayed at home as a full-time mother but when I take classes online I feel I can do anything and achieve something that I’ve always wanted.”

Vy Nguyen Hoang, 27, also enrolled at UoPeople, lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and expresses similar sentiments to Le regarding his hard educational restart. Hoang says, “I dropped out of my university and learned it is very difficult to start again with a traditional university here.” Hoang says the misguided curriculum and repetitious style of educational delivery at his brick-and-mortar university was a catalyst for his dropping out of the traditional path. “My local university doesn’t have the hands on knowledge that can be applied to work,” says Hoang, who goes on to say that he saw this firsthand in 2009 when Intel established their main factory in Ho Chi Minh City and struggled to find quality employees.

Hoang’s view that traditional education is often misguided is echoed by others. Pham Thi Ly of Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City, talking about education meeting technological growth, says, “There are enterprises abroad that say it takes two years to delete some of what students have learned. Then it takes another two years to teach the skills that they need,” according to a recent Vietnam Net article.

While UoPeople provides access and entry points into higher education and a pedagogy which differs from many countries’ focus, perhaps its core virtues are best understood in serving those with the most need. Reshef says, “We have survivors of the genocide in Rwanda, the earthquake in Haiti. We have about 1,000 refuges from all over the world. Because this is the population, small classes ensure they get personalized attention.”

Free isn’t free, but it is low cost

UoPeople, while being “tuition free” is not in fact completely free. Students are expected to pay $100 per exam. With this cost structure it brings an associate’s degree total cost to $2,000 (20 x $100) and a bachelor’s degree to $4,000 (40 x $100). Although scholarships have been widely available and utilized in the past, one of the disadvantages of UoPeople’s recent growth is a lack of adequate scholarship opportunities.

“Right now we have some students in developing countries that got accepted but cannot afford to pay the exam fees and we don’t have scholarships for them,” says Reshef. “So we tell them ‘wait until we have scholarships,’ and we feel very bad about it. Nobody should be excluded.”

Time will tell if UoPeople can survive in the wake of much larger and financially stronger learning platforms. As of now UoPeople is not financially stable on its own merit and requires external grants and sources of funding to keep operations running. Regardless of its small stature and less than perfect profit margin, the platform does highlight some of the shortcomings of MOOC offerings through its focus on personal connections and student accountability.

Perhaps UoPeople will be a forward-looking example of how the education markets can embody low cost accredited education tailored to student learning. One thing is for sure: mixing a small class size, a global student body, accredited degrees and an emphasis to help those less fortunate is a recipe for success. The future will show if public admiration can translate into a sustainable university bottom line.