Tuition-Free Online University Attracts Immigrant Students | Education

LOS ANGELES — Colombian-born Nathaly Ordonez had all but given up on going to college after learning her family’s visas had expired, leaving her struggling with immigration issues as soon as she graduated from his high school in New Jersey.

She eventually got a job as a waitress, but still wasn’t earning enough to cover tuition or get enough free time to attend classes. When she heard about a tuition-free online university, Ordonez was skeptical but decided to give it a try.

Now she is working on her Bachelor of Commerce and hopes to one day work for an advertising agency.

“When I walked in, I was so excited, because I got to go to college,” said Ordonez, who is now 23. “I will do what other people do.”

Since receiving accreditation last year, University of the People has seen its enrollment nearly quintuple to 2,500. While the majority of students come from overseas, the number of U.S.-based students States has gone from 72 in 2013 to 950 this year, according to the school, which says a recent survey indicated that about a quarter of them are illegal immigrants to the United States. .

“Everyone deserves a higher education,” said Shai Reshef, the Israeli-born university founder, who lives in New York.

Reshef, who previously ran an online university in Europe, launched People’s University in 2009 with a global outlook, and students come from all over the world. Although the school is not geared toward immigrants living in the United States, the low cost and flexible schedule — with weekly class assignments — appealed to many, he said.

Aiming to expand the scope of higher education, the university charges a $50 application fee and a $100 fee for each final exam, bringing the cost of a bachelor’s degree to around $4,000. But fees can be waived if students cannot pay, and scholarships have been offered to Haitians after the 2010 earthquake and Syrians fleeing to Europe, Reshef said.

In the United States, immigrants who cannot attend college because they lack proper legal papers have also enrolled. Some students aren’t allowed to attend traditional universities because of their immigration status, and others can’t afford it because they don’t qualify for financial aid.

Karen Soni, who came to the United States from Mexico as a child, said she attended a private university in Texas for a semester but had to drop out after paying nearly $6,000 . Five years later, she resumed her studies after finding People’s University and works on assignments every morning before going to her job at a marketing company and in the evenings after taking care of her 5-year-old son. .

“It’s a bit difficult because there’s a lot of work, there’s a lot of writing to do,” said Soni, 27, who lives in a suburb of Houston. “One of the advantages is that I can do it at my own pace. I can do it anytime.

The university is supported by New York University and the Clinton Global Initiative and relies heavily on volunteers, low-paid instructors, and free online books. It was accredited in 2014 by the nonprofit Distance Education Accreditation Commission.

Courses are designed by the university and delivered by designated instructors, and students must assess their peers in addition to participating in online discussion forums, submitting articles, and writing journals. Degrees are offered in business and computer science.

Some questions may also remain about the prestige of online education programs, but the university’s affiliations with traditional schools have helped boost its image, said William Perez, professor of education at Claremont Graduate University.

And enrolling more American immigrant students — many of whom have been strong advocates of immigration reform and have pressed the Obama administration to give them protection from deportation — could end up further strengthening the school in the long run. term, he said.

“The fact that very able and very successful students are pursuing these options, because they are otherwise limited, and with this degree they can go on and achieve great things, that will certainly continue to raise not only the profile but also the viability of these online options,” Perez said.

Even so, the program may not prove to be a panacea. In South Carolina, Venezuelan-born Jesus Bolivar was barred from college because of his immigration status. He is now studying computer science at the University of the People in hopes of improving his life, but the prospect of getting a better job after graduation is uncertain.

“Even if you can have a diploma, you can have a diploma hanging on your wall, you can’t work,” he said.

Jane Burman-Holtom said she volunteered to teach business classes at the university because she was inspired by the idea of ​​reaching students around the world. She said she had students from Bhutan, Russia, many African countries and even from the US military.

“We pick up people from all over the United States,” said Burman-Holtom, who teaches at an online university in Maryland. “A lot of them really want to have a better life, and that’s what everyone is looking for: a better life.”

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