Originally from Mexico, Emmanuel dreamed of getting a university education in the United States. But reality quickly hit.
“First I had to learn English and realized that there were very few opportunities for me to really study in a formal education in the United States,” he said.
That’s because he is undocumented. Emmanuel, who chose to use only his first name for this interview, said he couldn't afford school.
”When I realized that I didn’t have the chance to qualify for any aid, scholarships or financial aid here in the United States, I simply shut myself out of everything here,” he said.
Then Emmanuel read about University of the People, an online, tuition-free university that sounded too good to be true. With no other options, he signed up and became quickly convinced that this university would give him the tools for a future in computer science.
The school uses teaching materials that can be found free and online, and its teachers work on a voluntary basis.
“We built a model to show universities, to show governments that the issue of higher education can be solved," said Shai Reshef, president of the University of the People. "Higher education can be accessible, can be affordable, can be high-quality and shouldn’t leave anyone behind.”
Some fees apply
The University of the People currently offers degrees only in computer science and business administration. While tuition is free, students are required to pay a $50 application fee and $100 for each end-of-course exam. Financial aid is available.
Students are required to be proficient in English, to have finished high school and to be over 18.
“We are for them the alternative to no other alternative, and as such they grab it really hard, hold it and do anything they can in order to succeed,” Reshef said.
The university's students include refugees and undocumented immigrants. To help them, the university has partnerships with academic institutions such as Yale University and corporations such as Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard. Some of these partners offer financial support and even internships to students.
Emmanuel said that while he misses the ability to interact with his classmates in person, he loves working with other students from so many different countries.
“Thanks to this global perspective, it helps me to realize that I’m not limited to just staying in one country,” he said.
More than 2,500 students are enrolled. The university expects that number to double next year.