The first graduating class of the tuition-free online University of the People just received an early commencement gift: accreditation.

tuition-free-online-universityThe class of seven students, who will graduate in April, are among 700 students from more than 140 countries currently enrolled at the university.

Israeli entrepreneur Shai Reshef, the university’s president and founder, said he expects to have 5,000 students enrolled in its business administration and computer science degree programs by 2016

The university was founded in 2009 to help provide higher education to students who are usually left out of the system due to financial or geographical reasons. While the institution has received support from notable backers including Bill Gates, Oxford Vice Chancellor Colin Lucas, and New York University President John Sexton, it struggled to achieve accreditation for its courses.

Five years after its creation, the University of the People has been accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council, the university announced Feb. 14.

Reshef said accreditation was the university’s goal from “day one,” but there was never a guarantee it would happen. Despite the president’s optimism, he said, students sent questions to him nearly every day asking about the likelihood of getting accredited — questions Reshef could not answer.

“And then they got the news from me today, and I think that every single student responded to the eMail,” he said. “The response was anything between ‘We are jumping out of our chairs with excitement’ to ‘Wow, this is one of the happiest days of my life.’ It was tremendous joy and excitement, because these students, in a way, took a big risk.”

The university, which is primarily staffed by volunteers, pre-dates massive open online courses (MOOCs) — mostly for-profit ventures that have expressed a similar altruistic goal.

Like MOOCs, the courses are not technically free, charging up to $100 for proctored exams (though the cost can be reduced through scholarships).