When University of the People founder Shai Reshef welcomed 16 Haitian students to their first day of class last Thursday, he told them that life might prevent some of them--as it does students in every part of the world--from completing their degrees at the free, online university.

“They looked at me and said, you just don’t understand," Reshef says. "We cannot drop out. We have to finish it. That’s our lives. It’s like dying if we don’t graduate."

Haitians have good reason for thinking of education a bit differently than much of the rest of the world. In a country where just...

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