The Online College That's Helping Undocumented Students


Federal law does not prohibit undocumented students from enrolling in college, but it does something nearly as effective, banning them from receiving government aid. In recent years, though, some undocumented students have stumbled upon a little-known, nonprofit online university that doesn’t charge tuition and doesn’t care about students’ legal status.
University of the People certainly got the attention of Miguel Angel Cruz. The 27-year-old entered the U.S. illegally from Mexico a decade ago. He settled near Tampa, Fla., where he now shares a small trailer with his father. Cruz learned English and earned his GED. But his dream of going to college was just that — a dream — because of the high cost. Then, he started searching online.
“I was Googling, not for free but for cheaper universities, and I found the University of the People,” Cruz says.
He had never heard of the school but had nothing to lose, except the $50 nonrefundable admission fee he paid to enroll in the school’s business administration course. A similar course at the University of South Florida, near his home, would have cost close to $1,100.
Cruz is precisely the kind of student Shai Reshef says he set out to help when he founded University of the People six years ago.
“We have students from 170 countries,” Reshef says. “We have refugees, survivors of the earthquake in Haiti, the genocide in Rwanda. But about a quarter of our U.S. students are undocumented.”
Reshef, an Israeli-born entrepreneur, made millions from several for-profit, online education ventures in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East. He says the idea for creating a tuition-free online university came to him after spending time in several underdeveloped countries where most people have little or no access to higher education. Today, University of the People has 2,500 students enrolled. Half are in the U.S.
But what exactly are these students getting? Is this online school a realistic option
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