This All-Inclusive Online School is Helping Undocumented Students

University of the PeopleFor students living in America without legal documents, higher-education often seems like a far-off dream. It’s not illegal for them to attend school, but they’re completely unable to get government assistance, and with tuition on the rise, very few undocumented students can attend school without it.

One little-known online university is taking mercy on these students by not charging tuition and not requiring any proof of legal status. Aptly named, University of the People has been garnering the attention of undocumented immigrants who wish to earn degrees and pursue better lives.

One student says he stumbled upon the university when he was searching around for an option that wasn’t necessarily free, but more affordable for him. In spite of the fact that the university is not often talked about, he figured he had nothing to lose except for a $50 application fee – the courses were, as advertised, free.

The founder of University of the People, Shai Reshef, says he specifically aimed to help students like that one – students without documents who just wanted to fulfill their dreams in America. “We have students from 170 countries…We have refugees, survivors of the earthquake in Haiti, the genocide in Rwanda. But about a quarter of our U.S. students are undocumented,” says Reshef. He claims that the idea to create such a school came to him after he spent time in many different less-than-fortunate countries, and saw how few people in those countries had access to higher education. He had experience (and revenue) from starting several other for-profit online education ventures, and decided to try something different.

University of the People currently has about 2,500 students enrolled, half of which are in the US.

So you have to wonder, is this legit? Is it a realistic option? After a three-year review of the university, it received the stamp of approval from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission. It has become even more credible after creating partnerships with NYU, UC Berkeley, Yale, and Oxford.

Tuition aims to remain free, but students do have to pay $100 for each exam to help foot the bill. All in all, a four-year degree will end up costing $4,000, and scholarships are available if that is unmanageable. Companies like Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Intel help fund those scholarships.

So what are the experts saying? Those in the education field are praising the school – it has a rather high retention rate of 75%, and its mission is an altruistic one. Jamie Merisotis, a representative of the Lumina Foundation, says that higher education is “the key to integrating [immigrants] into our society and taking them out of the shadows.”

“Even if you kick them out of the country,” says Reshef, “they will be much more desired [with a degree] wherever they go. So it’s a win-win situation for everyone.”