Changemaker Asaf Wolff pioneers an education revolution

By UNESCO’s estimate, in 2025 there will be nearly 100 million young people seeking seats at universities that currently do not exist.

University of the People is tackling this problem head on as the world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, American, and accredited online university. Their unique growth strategy is a personalized and nearly entirely digital enrollment experience — one that earned them the 2022 Adobe Experience Maker Changemaker Award.

I sat down with Asaf Wolff, senior vice president of Enrollment at University of the People, who joined the organization a decade ago when they served only 100 students. His bold vision for scalable expansion using Adobe Experience Cloud has doubled enrollment each year since. This fall the university predicts serving over 150,000 students.

Wolff, who spoke to me from his New Jersey home, shared a bit about his journey and advice.

Today, your acquisition costs are under $60 per student, 1% of the average acquisition cost at US colleges. This is a gamechanger. How are you doing it?

If someone needs and wants higher education, we can create an automatic journey that will lead them all the way into the classroom. Until their first class, 99% of our students don’t engage with any humans.

We added Adobe Marketo Engage back in 2014 and built in a sustainable and scalable way that will enable us to serve 1 million students in the future. Eight years since we launched, it’s doing exactly what we expected and much more.

We have the ability to create a unique, segmented, personalized experience. This is important because we have students from over 200 countries and territories, various languages, cultures, and backgrounds. Automation enables us to scale it.

We are hoping to serve 200,000 students next year, and all the way to one million students in order to address a global issue that we believe can — and should — be solved.

What do you wish you knew starting out on this endeavor? What advice can you share for other experience makers?

Make sure you build the right infrastructure to measure things properly. It can be a struggle to understand the ROI per channel. That’s one reason we chose marketing automation, so with the limited resources we have, we can understand where to put them.

Early at a startup, there’s always limited resources. Our guiding question became, “what is the next most important thing we want to do?” The same goes for all marketing automation. Ask yourself first, “what is the most important thing that we need to do to improve results?”

Start small and simple with the first step, like for example a welcome email. Then, never aim for perfection. It needs to be good, but not perfect! Whether an email, SMS, landing page, or push notification, focus on the next step of the journey, because the impact on that next part of the experience that you create is much bigger than simply making sure the first step is perfect.

Always seek to impact the next part of the journey.

Asaf Wolff, senior vice president of Enrollment at University of the People

Can you explain your SMS approach? It's often an underutilized channel.

Email is a fantastic tool, but open rates are challenging for everyone today.

We need other mediums, and this is where push notifications on mobile and SMS come in. We use an integration with Adobe Marketo Engage and other platforms that enable us to automate text messages from when a student opens their application to when it is received, and in some cases engaging and triggering a conversation with a chatbot or human depending on the scenario.

Texting is used all the way through their journey until we text a student that we've saved their spot for the upcoming term and wish them good luck.

The fact that almost all our students go all the way to the classroom with no human interaction, and that they are excited and anticipating that first day of school, shows us that this is the right way to do it.

People are happy and costs are minimal. We can segment across different countries and cultures and still build an automated enrollment journey in a way that makes everyone excited to go to class.

As you manage your team and pioneer this new approach to enrollment, what keeps you going?

It may sound very cheesy, but I keep telling my amazing team that although we have limited resources and a lot of challenges, in order to change the world, higher education, and lives, we need to make the impossible possible.

This is what we do every day. We are doing things that no other institution of higher education can do, and we have grown faster and more dramatically than any other university in the world over the last few years. We are a combination between a startup and a large, accredited university, and that itself was once deemed impossible. Every day, we make the impossible possible.

Were you always interested in higher education?

No. I was supposed to be a lawyer. My father was a teacher, and I saw him giving back all my life. I remember as a child asking him, “Why are you doing nothing with your life? Why are you wasting time on others?”

When I was first offered the position at University of the People, I actually declined it.

But the moment I left the office of this startup in a basement, I felt that I was making a mistake. I can't explain why, but I turned around and I said yes. Now that I’m approaching a decade in this position, I know I made the right decision.

University of the People is on track to serve 150,000 students by the end of this year. Find out how to support their efforts by volunteering.