When undocumented students begin their pursuit of a college degree, they often run into restrictive institutional policies and a lack of financial support. In the past, undocumented students who couldn’t apply to or afford a degree program at a traditional college would be unable to get an education. Today, a nonprofit online college called University of the People gives hard-working undocumented students something they might not otherwise be able to find: opportunity.

The Challenges to Getting an Education as an Undocumented Student

Some undocumented students whose families immigrated when they were young aren’t even aware of their undocumented status until they attempt to get an education. They may learn that no matter how hard they worked in high school or how good their grades are, they’re not eligible for admission to the college of their choice, or that they don’t qualify for any financial aid – even loans. Other undocumented students may know about their status, but there’s little they can do as minors to resolve the problem.

There’s no law at the federal or state levels that explicitly denies undocumented students access to a college education in the United States, according to The College Board. However, just because it’s legal for undocumented students to go to school doesn’t mean it’s easy. For one thing, many schools have institutional admission policies that compel students to submit proof of citizenship or legal residency, The College Board reported. For undocumented students, this requirement can drastically cut down their higher education options.

Even when traditional colleges don’t require proof of citizenship, affording school is a problem. It’s not just that undocumented students can’t receive federal funding, which includes loans as well as grants. They often can’t receive merit-based scholarships, either. More importantly, they may have to pay more than their peers because they’re considered foreign students. An undocumented student may have lived in the same state since infancy and still not be eligible for in-state tuition – and that can put a college education out of reach.

How Online College Can Help Undocumented Students Earn Their Degrees

To solve these problems, undocumented students need to find schools with admissions policies that don’t take citizenship into account and that are affordable even without federal aid. That doesn’t leave them many options, but one school it doesn’t rule out is the University of the People. The global tuition-free online institution charges students only a modest fee – $100 per course – to take the final exam and earn college credit, National Public Radio (NPR) reported. The setup, similar to emerging policies that allow MOOCs to help online college students achieve career advancement, means that students can earn their bachelor’s degrees in their entirety for just a few thousand dollars.

The University of the People has earned approval from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission. A quarter of its American students – about an eighth of its total student population – is made up of undocumented students who are working toward a better life.