The Best Online Colleges for Undocumented Students

Updated November 11, 2022

Online college can help to counteract the absence of federal financial aid (and state aid, depending on where you live) for undocumented is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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As an undocumented or immigrant student, you have the right to a public school education and the right to apply to the college of your choice.


But you may also face a number of legal, financial, and practical challenges as you look for the right school. Online college may help to offset some of these challenges, or at the very least it can provide you with flexibility and convenience while you navigate new courses, a new community, or even a new country.

Challenges Facing Undocumented Students

Undocumented students are legally entitled to attend public school and apply to colleges, regardless of legal status, though exact laws vary by state. Roughly 65,000 undocumented students take advantage of this right by graduating from American high schools every year. However, fewer than 10% of those students will continue into college. Even fewer of them will complete college and earn a degree.

There are a lot of reasons for this enormous drop-off between high school graduation and college enrollment.

  • Undocumented students are usually not eligible for federal financial aid and therefore must find alternate ways to finance a college education.
  • Some states won’t admit undocumented students into community or public schools, which are often among the more affordable and accessible options.
  • Some private colleges, regardless of state, won’t admit undocumented students as a matter of school policy.
  • While state financial aid, scholarships, advocacy groups, and other resources offer support for undocumented students, language barriers, cultural isolation, and fear of legal complications often prevent immigrants from seeking, finding, or accessing such resources.
  • Constantly changing federal law, particularly surrounding the DREAM Act, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and Trump-era rollbacks to immigrant services, have pushed the legal status of immigrants and undocumented students — many of whom have lived in the United States nearly their entire lives — into uncertainty and legal turmoil.
  • Some undocumented students may not even be aware that they are eligible to attend colleges and universities in the United States.

For more on America’s ever-shifting immigration laws and policies, check out Undocumented Students, DACA, and the Law: Key Legislation.

Otherwise, read on to find out how online college can help you overcome some of these challenges:

Benefits of Online College

Online college allows you to attend courses remotely and earn a reputable degree from the comfort of your own residence or the local coffee shop or library. For an undocumented student, finding the right online college can offer a few additional advantages that are worth considering, including:

  • The Ability to Take Classes From a Safe and Private Location

    Undocumented students who live in regions or municipalities where the risk of enforcement confrontation is greater can enjoy the security and anonymity of learning from home. Online college opens doors without presenting the risks that can come with travel or relocation.
  • Access to Schools Outside Your State of Residence

    If you live in a state that restricts your ability to apply to or access schools, you can apply to an online college based in a different state. The same is true if you live in an area with limited higher education options.
  • The Ability to Space out Your Courses While Balancing Other Practical, Legal, and Financial Challenges

    Online college is a good way to dip your toe into higher education without being immersed in campus life and all its related cultural and linguistic challenges. Online college gives you an opportunity to focus exclusively on your education and earning a degree.
  • Affordable Options Regardless of Financial Aid Eligibility

    Online college can help to counteract the absence of federal financial aid (and state aid, depending on where you live) for undocumented students. Traditional college campus experiences come with meal plans, dorms, and expensive amenities, and students bear the brunt of these costs. Online colleges often dispense with these costs, providing you with leaner and more cost-effective learning options. Below, we’ll explore a few ways that you can receive an online education tuition-free, and in some cases, free of charges altogether.

These unique qualities make online college an attractive avenue for undocumented students facing legal, practical, and financial challenges. With shifting laws and policies presenting an increasingly uncertain outlook for undocumented students pursing higher education, online college can be a safe, cost-effective option.

Begin your search by checking out our list of the 50 Best Online Colleges for 2020. These schools offer some of the greatest flexibility and the best value for your money.

And because the cost of college is always a factor, check out the Most Affordable Online Colleges for Bachelor’s Degrees.

Unique Online Opportunities

Tuition-Free Online Schools

Because undocumented students usually lack access to federal financial aid — and sometimes in-state tuition discounts, too — finding affordable ways to pursue a degree can be challenging. Luckily, there are a number of online schools that offer tuition-free programs. These schools are usually not entirely free of charge, but the tuition itself is free. This means that students still pay other fees and expenses, but the overall cost is lower, creating greater access for students with financial and practical challenges

Check out the Best Colleges Providing Free Tuition for a look at some of the schools leading the way in this area.

Innovative Online Models

University of the People (UOP)

University of the People is a stellar example of how the tuition-free approach can be put to innovative use and help undocumented students. UOP describes itself as the first accredited, non-profit, tuition-free online university in the United States. It's dedicated to creating opportunities and access for high school graduates the world over, particularly those working to "overcome financial, geographic, political, and personal constraints that keeping them from collegiate studies."

In fact, UOP even provides full scholarships for students who are unable to meet the financial threshold for basic fees and expenses. Through its relationships with highly reputable universities, private companies, and renowned academics, UOP is making meaningful college credits more readily accessible to undocumented students.

Modern States

Modern States oversees a program called Freshman Year for Free, in which students can choose tuition-free online courses from a catalog of more than 40 core college first-year subjects. Participating professors from leading universities instruct courses that qualify student to take CLEP exams and earn traditional academic credits accepted by over 2,900 colleges and universities. This is an excellent point of entry for undocumented students looking to get a foot in the academic door. Credits earned through this program could put you in a good position to transfer into a two- or four-year program down the line.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

If your greatest priority is to gain a subject-specific education that you can apply in a practical, professional, or complimentary educational setting, MOOCs can meet your needs. MOOCs are offered by a wide spectrum of institutions, from exclusively online colleges and traditional universities to private companies and consumer research groups. In most cases, you can earn a certification, though you will rarely earn academic credits without already being enrolled in the university sponsoring your course. This also means that MOOCs are not a direct route to a degree.

However, MOOCs are a great way to access instruction, materials, and a community of other learners in an area of that interests you. MOOCs are usually loosely organized and self-paced, which means you'll be in control of your level of involvement. For either a nominal fee or no cost at all, you will have a chance to learn skills or subjects that could have practical applications during your education, in a job, or for a career.

Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI)

HSIs are accredited colleges and universities that serve student bodies that are more than 25% Hispanic. The designation was officially established by Congress in 1992 in order to earmark federal grant funding for the advancement of schools with large Hispanic populations. Federal funding may be used for faculty development, administrative management, development of academic programs and curricula, teaching equipment, renovation, counseling, tutoring, and student support. HSIs are often particularly sympathetic to and accommodating of the needs of undocumented students of Hispanic backgrounds. HSIs may be either two- or four-year programs, and many offer online courses and degrees. Check out this complete list of HSIs[PDF] as of the 2016–2017 academic year. HACU is is the leading association of HSIs, making it a great resource for finding and researching HSIs. HACU helped create the HSI designation through advocacy and political action, and now it helps provide scholarships, create job opportunities, and provide critical education and information on issues impacting Hispanic Americans and Hispanic students. If you are an undocumented student of Hispanic background, consider reaching out to HACU for help navigating the HSI landscape.

Community Colleges

Community college is another affordable option for undocumented students. Community colleges are public two-year institutions, typically conferring associate degrees and often ranking among the most affordable ways to access a college education. An associate degree can be a point of entry into a wide range of careers or a cost-effective way to accumulate credits before transferring to a four-year college to earn a bachelor’s degree.

DACA recipients have the right to apply to any community college. Many community colleges also offer online degrees, which means you can choose between traditional or online classes.

If you are not a DACA recipient, you may still have the right to apply to your local community college, though it depends on your state of residence. While many states extend public university access and in-state tuition rates to undocumented students, other states have restrictions. Check on your local state laws to be sure what your options are.

If you are an undocumented student without DACA status in one of the more restrictive states, you can still enroll in online community college or another degree-granting institution by choosing an online program from a less restrictive state.

For a closer look at your options, check out the Best Community Colleges in the United States.

Click here to learn more about earning an associate degree.


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