Is red-hot cryptocurrency becoming the new gold standard in higher education?

University of the People is one of a number of institutions accepting payments and donations via Bitcoin and other digital assets.
By: | December 15, 2021
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Being bold and different is part of the makeup of the Pasadena, Calif.-based University of the People, which became the first in higher education to be non-profit, accredited, online and tuition-free.

As part of its “education revolution,” UoPeople is adding a growing innovation to help facilitate ease of the transactions that can better serve students, both personally and through support being provided to the institution. The university announced it is allowing cryptocurrency donations toward its endowment and will give students from across the globe the opportunity to pay down fees using digital assets. It said the need to allow these transactions is imperative, particularly as its base of more than 100,000 international students face both financial and physical hurdles in trying to transfer funds.

The university joins a few others in this quest to change the way higher ed allows payments, including the Wharton School of Business, which permits students to use cryptocurrency for online courses and also accepts it for donations (in May, Wharton received $5 million in gifts via Bitcoin). The University of California at Berkeley, Lehigh University and Carnegie Mellon University also have seen significant crypto donations.

University of the People already has $2 million in place with company Coinbase in its quest to reach a $10 million endowment, thanks to a donation from Albert Wenger, managing partner at Union Square Ventures, and his wife, Susan Danziger, founder of The Eutopia Foundation. “As the university of the future, it makes perfect sense for us to create our endowment in the currency of the future,” said University of the People President Shai Reshef. “UoPeople has developed a new model of higher education and cryptocurrency is a new model of finance.”

More than just payments

University of the People isn’t just offering digital financial transactions; it promises to provide learning and resources around cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. And it will be infusing its curriculum with studies on blockchain and digital currency. “We have a responsibility to educate our students about how cryptocurrency is transforming the way the world conducts business,” Reshef said.

One of the unique ways University of People is operating in cryptocurrency is by providing graduates with “tamper-proof digital diplomas via NFTs (non-fungible tokens). The move is another to make transfer of documents more flexible and more accessible “particularly to refugees or graduates who need to provide proof of their education to employers abroad.”

Despite the mixed reports on Bitcoin, acceptance of crypto is gaining steam, particularly among money-making millennials. According to a survey done of young millionaires by CNBC, around a quarter have their money in Bitcoin, Ethereum or other digital currencies. Playing the market smartly, they are rapidly gaining wealth by dealing in those assets. Most millionaires have steered clear of crypto and NFTs, although younger investors, too, are bullish on them.

The fact that major universities and business schools are jumping in on crypto may be the linchpin that drives hesitant institutions to finally make the move as they look to grow enrollments and endowments. Many highly competitive universities provide course options on crypto, including Stanford, Harvard, UC-Berkeley and Arizona State University.

Universities have several options when considering acceptance of crypto payments, including the more complex—donor advised funds, which require the giver to jump through several hoops to give digital assets to the institution—to the more palatable, such as donation platforms. The latter is the simplest way for crypto to get converted into funds and for a college or university to be covered in terms of meeting federal reporting requirements. Both options mean robust technology must be implemented to ensure donations can be securely accepted and are then transferred accordingly.