In Time of Uncertainty for Undocumented Students, One Free Online University Sees Surge
A free online university called University of the People has long offered a haven for undocumented immigrants and refugees, and student interest is growing as the Trump Administration considers ending an Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to apply for work permits, social security numbers and protection from deportation.
“We have definitely seen an influx of DACA and undocumented students in the U.S. enrolling at UoPeople lately,” says the university’s president, Shai Reshef. University of the People is nonprofit and accredited but tuition-free, with a mission of opening the door to higher education for those who can’t get access through traditional channels. “We stand with all students who find their futures threatened by this possible directive, regardless of their legal standing inside or outside the U.S.”
There’s no federal law banning undocumented immigrants from entering postsecondary institutions—in fact, 20 states (including California, Florida, Texas and New York) offer in-state tuition to undocumented students—but most universities require applicants to submit a high school diploma, if not proof of U.S. citizenship. Young immigrants who fall under the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act’s requirements are now able to apply for documentation, thanks to DACA, which started in 2012.
DACA has more than 800,000 participants and continues to grow, according to University of Houston law professor Michael Olivas, who advocated for the legislation and has since studied its impact. “Clearly, it’s met a substantial need.”
Even though they’re legally allowed to work and live in the U.S., refugees also encounter obstacles if they decide to pursue higher education. “Since refugees are fleeing from war or political oppression, they represent a relatively small number of college-eligible people because education is not their primary goal in relocating,” says Olivas. “Those who do want to pursue higher education face the same kinds of impediments undocumented immigrants do—ineligibility for federal funding and in some instances state funding, and often extreme political and economic hardships.”
A refugee from Somalia, 33-year-old Ahmed Burale, says he heard about the online university while he was living in a refugee camp in Kenya. “I’d finished high school in the camp and wanted to go to college,” Burale says. Expenses were a problem, so Burale started searching online for scholarship opportunities. “I found that UoPeople provides free tuition and only charges for the exam fees. I applied, was accepted, and started my program in 2016.”
Burale came to the U.S. in May 2016 and was able to continue his computer-science degree program at the university during and after the transition. The university’s online platform has provided the flexibility he’s needed as during a cross-cultural move, adjusting to a new culture and needing to work full-time to provide for his family. “Online education is the best thing for refugees, because we need to have some kind of income,” Burale says. “I can work during regular hours and do my studies anytime. I don’t have to pay for textbooks or go somewhere to attend a class.”
According to Reshef, the university exists to serve people like Burale. “We’re dedicated to providing higher education for those who don’t have that opportunity elsewhere,” he says. “We have students coming to us because they can’t afford universities or because they live in places where there aren’t any. For these people, we’ve opened the gates and created a university that’s accessible and affordable.”
An Unusual Model
While the University of the People is technically tuition-free, the institution does require students to pay a small fee—$100—for each final exam they take. There are a limited number of scholarships available to those who cannot afford the exam fees, Reshef says. To gain admittance, students must either submit a copy of their high school diploma or take an entrance exam. “We basically open the gates to everyone, but screen them while they’re coming in,” Reshef says. “Study with us, and if you do well, we don’t care about your high school diploma.” The university doesn’t require applicants to prove their legal status, either.
Courses are nine weeks long and include reading assignments, homework and online discussions. Because students live in many countries, there’s not a specific time when the classes “meet,” although professors post new assignments every week. “The instructor checks in with the class every day, reads everything and responds to posts in the discussion forum,” says Reshef. “But while their professor is there for them every day, the model is based on peer-to-peer learning. We want students to engage in discussions and learn from each other.” By the end of the week, they take a quiz to ensure understanding, and peers anonymously assess all homework assignments. Instructors proctor final exams in real time.
Currently, the University of the People’s 10,000 students hail from 194 countries, although half of them are in the U.S. “Forty percent of our students inside the U.S. were not born here—they’re immigrants or refugees,” Reshef says. “More than 40 percent of them are first-generation college students, and 50 percent come to us with student debt.” All the courses are in English, but UoP offers a course for English language learners.
Opening the Door
Like Burale, many immigrants and refugees are attracted to online higher education because it’s portable. “We’re a university in a box,” says Reshef. “If you study at a local university, you can’t move.”
A number of the university’s refugee students are living in war-torn countries, like Syria, venturing to Internet cafés to check in with their classes and submit homework. “We’re a different kind of university,” Reshef says. “A lot of our students come to us because they don’t have any other options.”
For immigrants and refugees who come to the U.S., University of the People wants to act as a doorway for them to study at a brick-and-mortar university, if they choose. “After two years with us, they’ll have an accredited associate’s degree,” says Reshef. “They can then transfer to a traditional U.S. university, such as Berkeley.”
While critics question the quality of online-only higher education, Reshef emphasizes UoP’s rigorous foundation. “Our deans are from New York University and Princeton, and administrators from Duke, Vassar, Berkeley, and Oxford set up the standards of the university,” he says. “Many of our students are coming from hardship, and we do our best to accommodate everything they need—and we’ll continue to provide them with accessible, affordable higher education and a chance for a better life, even if President Trump ends DACA.”
Immigrants have always played a vital role in United States history, and despite recent political debates, foreign-born Americans continue to make their mark. Since 1980, the U.S. has resettled about 3 million refugees from other parts of the world. More than 1 million people immigrate legally to the U.S. every year, and about 11 million undocumented immigrants live here.
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