How an online university is helping undocumented and low-income students get college degrees

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“I applied to community college but my federal aid was denied because of my immigration status,” said Juan, an undocumented student from Mexico. But now Juan is studying computer science at University of the People, an online initiative which promotes the notion that everyone, regardless of where they were born or how much they earn, should have access to higher education.


Colleges in the U.S. are among the most expensive—and selective—in the world and many are unreachable for undocumented students. Some believe the time has come to change that, framing education as a right, rather than a privilege.

“We are for students who graduated high school but cannot afford a higher education and for those who for political reasons cannot attend college,” Shai Reshef, president of University of the People, told Fusion. The university isn't free, but it is affordable; students generally pay around $4,000 to get a college degree. The school offers scholarships, and thousands of professors teach pro bono via online tutorials and exams.


The university has partnered with private donors including other universities and corporations. Reshef expects University of the People to become financially sustainable next year.

Launched six years ago, the school offers two degrees: business administration and computer science. The only requirement for prospective students is a high school diploma and English proficiency (and an internet connection, obviously). Reshef says some 2,500 students from 170 different countries are now enrolled. Most live in the United States, and a significant number are undocumented, Reshef said.

Cecilia, an undocumented student from Brazil, is studying business administration.

“I left home and came as a high school exchange student in 1993,” she said. Cecilia overstayed her visa but was accepted at a local university in Indianapolis. She was told she needed to return to Brazil and apply for another student visa. But traveling back home meant not being able to come back. She also faced another challenge: paying the considerably higher out-of-state tuition.

“Undocumented people have a hard time because we just don’t qualify,” she said.

So in 2010 Cecilia enrolled in the University of the People, where there were no issues about her immigration status. “The ability to get a degree, while studying at home, and on my time, without it costing a fortune were key in joining this university.”


She said studying online gives her more flexibility. “Online education can reach more students in general, with the busy lifestyles we all have,” adding she works three jobs and volunteers as a soccer coach.

But she still worries about her immigration status.

“I came into this country legally and I became illegal by overstaying my visa,” she said. “I feel the system is broken. I believe amnesty is not the answer, but a true reform.”


Online initiatives like the University of the People are not only helping undocumented students but also students who work full-time or others who simply want to avoid driving themselves deep in debt to get a college education.

Reshef said most students are in their late 20s.

“In the future, there will be universities like Harvard and ours," he said.

"It’s not that one is better than the other,” Reshef said. "We should simply have options; not everyone can pay $40,000 to $60,000 a year to educate themselves.”

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