May 1 is National College Decision Day—a landmark moment for high school seniors across the US. This is the day they finally choose where they will pursue their higher education dreams.

But this year is different. Instead of excitedly filling in acceptance forms, students and families around the country are still awaiting confirmation of their financial aid packages. Many have reported website glitches when trying to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), while others, such as those whose parents do not have social security numbers, are unable to apply online at all.

Without this support in place, many students will not know if they can afford to attend their college of choice. Instead, they must delay making a decision that will shape the rest of their lives. According to the National College Attainment Network, the number of high school seniors filling out FAFSA is down by half compared to this time last year. In other words, this financial uncertainty is deterring young people from pursuing higher education.

The FAFSA delays are frustrating—for colleges, for students, and for American society. They are also indicative of a larger and more concerning issue: In many parts of the world, higher education is already unattainable for the average citizen due to the high cost of tuition. In the US, a college degree is increasingly becoming a privilege for the few.

The impact on young people’s future career prospects, happiness and financial security could be significant. Recent research conducted by Tripp Umbach, one of the leading authorities on the economic impact of higher education, reveals that US graduates with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn US$1.2 million more during their working life than those without (US$2.8 million vs. US$1.6 million). The latest Federal Reserve data also indicate the widening wage gap is creating a societal divide rather than propelling us forward.

Moreover, the barriers to accessing higher education are leading many Americans to question its overall return on investment (ROI). In 2024, the average cost for a bachelor’s degree, including tuition, room and board, fees and supplies, was US$146,000. Based on the earning expectations outlined above, this equates to an ROI of just over US$8 for every US$1 spent. Given the huge financial strain the initial outlay can place on students and their families, our country must find a way to increase the return on students’ educational investment.

Only by providing affordable, accessible, and high-quality higher education options can we equip future generations with the skills, knowledge, and life experiences needed to solve the world’s most pressing challenges. This will require us to develop innovative and affordable learning solutions that ensure no one is forced to decide whether to continue their education based on the financial challenges they face.

That is why online learning should be at the heart of a new era of higher education. It enables people to earn college degrees at a fraction of the cost of a traditional brick and mortar university but with the same long-term rewards.

Take the University of People (UoPeople), a virtual institution that enrolls over 137,000 students in more than 200 countries and territories. All UoPeople’s degrees are 100% online and low cost, allowing students to earn an accredited bachelor’s degree for approximately US$5,600. In 2023, UoPeople’s return on investment was US$250 for every $1 spent—around 30 times higher than the average US bachelor’s degree. In addition, there are no limits on seats, all textbooks are available free online, no travel is needed, and students can schedule their studies to fit around their work and family commitments.

The pandemic showed us what is possible when learning shifts online. But it also exposed issues of connectivity, access, and accountability that need to be addressed. I therefore urge universities and governments around the globe to build on, improve and scale up this learning model. By removing the financial and geographical limitations of traditional institutions, we can open the gates of higher education more widely. And through philanthropic funding, like the Yidan Prize project funds, universities can tap into emerging technologies such as generative AI to make learning experiences more connected and more personalized than ever.

But while disruption can be beneficial, our job is not to reinvent the wheel completely but to ensure it rolls fairly and fruitfully for everybody. Where, how, and by whom a degree program is delivered may change, but our commitment to delivering affordable and accessible education for all must be unwavering. This is key to a future in which both individuals and society can thrive.

Shai Reshef
2023 Yidan Prize for Education Development Laureate;
Founder and President, University of the People