Our team envisions a new model of higher education for resettled refugees in the United States, one which is high-quality, low-cost, and designed to meet individual learner needs. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) believes that higher education solutions should be as adaptable as the populations that they serve; our innovative competency-based AA and BA degrees enable learners to proceed at their own pace, while full accreditation and professional skills training ensure that learners will be able to find meaningful employment after graduation.
This idea is made possible by SNHU's innovative competency-based degree platform, College for America, a low-cost online education program that awards US-accredited degrees based on competencies that students acquire rather than by counting hours that they commit to their studies. This technology makes to possible to bring comprehensive, context-sensitive, and scalable higher education opportunities to resettled refugees.
Resettled refugees face myriad pressures after arriving to the US, often struggling to integrate and find meaningful employment. Many have been disadvantaged by broken education systems in camps and conflict zones, and others lack documentation of their schooling and work experiences. Those with limited English language skills may find themselves socially isolated and in need of language courses. To provide for their families, many take on low-skill jobs. Amidst these competing demands, few resettled refugees are able to access higher education opportunities. Refugee learners who do manage to study in higher education institutions, including community colleges, often struggle to complete their degrees due to the lack of individualised academic support, competing responsibilities, inflexible learning models, and high costs.
Yet many refugees - of all ages - are interested in pursuing further education, and many arrive in the US with some high school or tertiary education experience. There is strong evidence to suggest that expanding opportunities for resettled refugees to access AA & BA degrees supports them to develop a solid foundation of employment skills and qualifications and establish roots in a new country. A recent US report noted that policymakers need to improve access to education and mainstream jobs for resettled refugees.
Experts have criticized the traditional university learning model as inappropriate for many non-conventional students, and this is especially the case for resettled refugee learners. And it's true that many other students – both American and non-American - face similar challenges in obtaining a college degree; in fact, these kinds of students were for whom the competency-based College for America platform was designed. Yet resettled refugees, in particular youth and young adults, face a myriad of additional disadvantages, including lower educational and English levels, as well as potential traumatic past experiences. In addition, refugees who are resettled to the US are usually pushed immediately into low-skilled jobs in order to make money and be self-sustaining, given the extremely limited time period for resettlement support from agencies. Struggling with full-time jobs so soon after arrival in a new country – and often while also balancing family and community commitments – means that many resettled refugees never get the opportunity to improve their English skills or pursue costly higher education opportunities, leaving them trapped in low-skill, low-wage labour markets.
Education is the only way to break this cycle, and to offer resettled refugees greater economic mobility and social integration. That's why we want to create a pathway in which resettled refugees can be supported to pursue fully-accredited, online, competency-based degrees in a supportive and flexible program that accounts for their learning and emotional needs.
We are also interested in the exploring competency-based education as a model for offering US degree “equivalency” to resettled refugees who are already highly educated, but lack US-accredited degrees. The competency-based model is designed to advantage students who are already highly skilled and educated, with significant work experience. Without the constraints of seat time, the more competencies a potential student has already “mastered” in the real world, the more quickly they can move through their projects and the degree program.
In addition, we are particularly interested in developing a more robust financial sustainability model for this program. The current cost for accessing the College for American degree platform is $3,000 per year, which is already extremely low-cost compared to most American degree standards. However, this still presents a significant financial barrier for recently arrived refugees, especially those working in low-skilled jobs. As with other degree programs, students can use scholarships or government grants like the Pell Fund to cover tuition costs for CfA at SNHU. However, we anticipate that difficulties with financial literacy and other barriers to applying for financial aid will create challenges for refugee students seeking to enter our program. We therefore want to develop a model that includes coaching in financial literacy and advising support for students who are receiving financial aid, scholarships, or loans. (Check our user experience map to learn more!)
Prototyping and Feedback from Resettled Refugees (updated Feb 2017)
In order to elicit feedback and build a deeper understanding of the perspectives of our potential beneficiaries, we developed a very basic digital prototype of our model that was intended to simulate some of the elements of the "College for America" experience. Using existing networks in Pittsburgh, New Hampshire, and elsewhere in the US, we enquiries to refugee community leaders and youth asking them if they were interested in participating in the feedback phase of our project proposal.
By creating a short competency-based “project” we were able to test whether resettled refugee participants had some of the most basic skills and needs for the program – including access to a computer and internet, adequate computer software, and the time and initiative to participate – as well as elicit feedback on the proposed model and the many challenges faced by would-be refugee college learners. As anticipated, the challenges were many. Not all students had access to or knew how to use PowerPoint software. Most failed to follow the second step of the instructions – sending a link to an article! Although we don’t know our exact response rate, as we encouraged everyone to send on to more people in their networks, we suspect the response was very low – again, expected for a difficult to reach population with busy schedules. Still, the insights from this prototype activity and subsequent feedback were significant.
From the project submissions and survey results, we learned that many of the resettled refugees who were contacted to participate had already attempted to access college-level education at some point. Some were still enrolled, but many others had dropped out after taking a few courses, citing the difficulties of balancing the competing demands of jobs, family, community, ESL study, and integration in a new place. Finances and transport also proved to be significant barriers to attending traditional college programs. Other respondents had investigated the possibility of online education, but found that they lacked the support and motivation to be successful. Still others had found success, whether in community college programs or online degree programs, but still believed that access for higher education remained too limited for their friends and family in the community.
This feedback built on our existing understanding of the many complex challenges – but also opportunities – for resettled refugees who want to pursue further education. It also highlighted the need for diverse models and solutions even within resettled refugee populations. Some learners stressed a need for a physical learning space in order to be successful, while others preferred a no-travel option given transport or childcare restrictions. This means that our model should offer students a variety of options for support and learning, with a focus on developing and maintaining a robust learning and coaching community for all.
Existing Research & Evidence for our Idea
The background research and data for our idea is primarily drawn from an innovative pilot project that was conducted by College for America (CfA) at Southern New Hampshire University. The goal of the pilot was to test a model that maximises success for refugees and could be offered through all resettlement agencies. The initial pilot program produced mixed results, providing evidence of the need to better support refugee learners.
CfA and the International Institute of New England (IINE) entered into a collaboration to deliver associate and bachelor degree programs that would benefit refugees, particularly for new arrivals with foreign degrees that are not accepted by US certification agencies. CfA’s competency-based, flexibly-paced model provides the opportunity for working adults to earn a recognized degree in a very short time and for a very affordable price. The CfA-IINE model envisioned extending the CfA learning coach model to take full advantage of the resources provided by IINE, including ESL classes, mentors and technology facilities.
The pilot program was launched in August of 2014 with the goal of enrolling a minimum group of ten IINE clients with refugee status, Green Cards or I-94 card as well as those who had recently become citizens. All students were worked towards their Associate of Arts in General Studies with a Concentration in Business. In the pilot program there were two women and four men; all arrived in the US between 2007 and 2014 from countries of origin including Bhutan, Sudan, Burkina-Faso, Cameroon, DRC. Fifty percent had some higher education. One is projected to graduate within the next year, two progressed at a steady pace, and the other three have moved more slowly (The ability to set one’s own pace is central to CfA’s self-directed model, with coaches providing encouragement as students move forward).
Insights from the pilot program will go a long way informing future initiatives to improve access to higher education for resettled refugee learners. You can read more about the findings and lessons learned from this pilot in our research phase submission here.