Illustration: Oliver Munday/New Yorker

With tuition on the rise and other roadblocks ahead, a four-year degree seems increasingly unattainable to some. For undocumented students in many states across the U.S., the hurdle is set much higher.

A recent Buzz Bin by my colleague Christian Munson details how one school is helping students learn the skills they need to be employable, all without paying a dime of tuition up front.

This got me thinking about a few things: what holds students back from going to school? Are desired student outcomes being met? What are schools doing to address students’ concerns? And, what are they doing to make sure current and prospective students know they care?

Then, I read an article in the New Yorker’s May 22, 2017 issue: An Underground College for Undocumented Immigrants. I learned that while admission to (and paying for) college seems a daunting task for many students, undocumented immigrants in three states (Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia) are actually denied access to public colleges. Many more do not allow for in-state tuition rates or state financial aid for undocumented students hoping to attend a public school.

“Undocumented students may incorrectly assume that they cannot legally attend college in the United States. However, there is no federal or state law that prohibits the admission of undocumented immigrants to U.S. colleges, public or private. Federal or state laws do not require students to prove citizenship in order to enter U.S. institutions of higher education. Yet institutional policies on admitting undocumented students vary.”

The CollegeBoard

The Atlantic calls this ban a folly. But if there are barriers to higher education, some non-traditional school, somewhere is finding a way to help break them.

Freedom University is giving undocumented students in Georgia tools that help them overcome challenges that bar them from public higher education. They provide “tuition-free [college-level, albeit unaccredited] education, college application and scholarship assistance, and social movement leadership training to undocumented students…”

It seems to be working. One out of five Freedom University students leave with a full ride to college, either to an out-of-state school or at Emory University.

Yes, the landscape for undocumented students in Georgia represents a larger, underlying turbulence that requires a lengthy discussion. Freedom University cannot achieve its “right to education” mission alone.

However, just like MissionU is creating alternatives to high tuition costs, programs like these represent a restless effort to affect change in higher education from those who feel the system is broken.

The traditional model of higher ed is being shaken up and the path to attaining a degree is going with it. There are more and more options to choose from, and uncharted territory ahead in terms of what the job market will demand.

With so many pathways to advanced education and a more loosely defined “traditional” student, it’s more important than ever for colleges and universities (and non-traditional programs) to think of how their brand represents adaptability to students’ needs.