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Developing a higher education model for resettled refugees: competency-based degrees for integration and employment [updated 02.28]

Providing resettled refugees with flexible opportunities for high-quality university education and employment experience

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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.

The many steps in the integration process. Here, two members of Pittsburgh' Somali Bantu refugee community receive certificates at their naturalization ceremony.

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.

Who is your idea designed for and how does it reimagine higher education to support the needs of tomorrow?

Our idea is designed for resettled refugee youth and adults in the US who want to pursue higher education but have been unable to access opportunities or succeed in a traditional university model. SNHU's innovative competency-based AA and BA degrees enable learners to proceed at their own pace, offering individualised academic support and on-the-job learning experience. We are reimagining a higher education solution that is as adaptable as the populations that we aim to serve.

This idea emerged from:

  • A group brainstorm
  • A student brainstorm
  • An individual

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

We would love to hear about insights and evidence from other initiatives and ideas that have tried to reach resettled refugee learners, as well as different tools or online resources that might support resettled refugee learners to improve their skills and language levels in order to successfully pursue degree at SNHU or elsewhere. Feedback is welcome from all, especially those who have experienced displacement or resettlement directly, as well as people working with these groups.

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

To get feedback and suggestions to improve our idea, we will first reach out to resettled refugees in the US, including pilot program participants as well as refugee students who have been resettled from our program in Rwanda. We plan to ask a group of resettled refugee volunteers to participate in an online competency-based "project' that is modelled after our degree platform, to better understand the challenges they face and the support they will need for this idea to be successful.

Tell us about your work experience:

I'm currently working in Rwanda to implement and conduct research on a pilot program for delivering higher education for refugees, a partnership between Southern New Hampshire University and Kepler. My background is primarily in research; I previously worked with the Humanitarian Innovation Project, a team at Oxford University conducting research on refugee innovation and livelihoods. I also worked as a tutor for resettled refugees in Pittsburgh - which sparked my interest in refugee education!

How would you describe this idea while in an elevator with someone? 2-3 sentences.

Resettled refugees in the USA have incredibly low enrollment and graduation rates in higher education, despite the crucial role that it plays in securing a career and integrating into American society. Our idea is to develop a competency-based program for resettled refugees that combines online coursework with in-person coaching. Learners would work at their own pace toward an accredited AA or BA degree, with the flexibility and tailored support (language, emotional, etc.) needed to succeed.

What is the specific problem your idea is trying to solve? 1 sentence.

Upon arrival in the US, resettled refugees face unparalleled challenges in accessing and completing higher education that could improve their prospects for integration and self-reliance.

How is your idea different or unique from what is currently on the market?

Existing opportunities for refugee higher education include 1) scholarships to traditional college programs and 2) reduced-cost online courses. Campus-based course schedules are incompatible with refugees' busy work lives, and online classes lack in-person support. Both measure progress by attendance hours. Our competency-based solution allows learners to move at their own pace, plus has the flexibility to fit complex schedules and diverse learner needs through face-to-face support and coaching.

How do you plan to measure the impact of your idea?

We are committed to building a robust evidence base for refugee higher education models. We will focus on monitoring and evaluation for student academic progress and graduation rates, but we will also look closely at post-graduation outcomes including employment, promotions, income, and student satisfaction with their degree. We also want to understand how our program is - and is not - reaching particular learners, and how it can better support successful integration into US society.

How might your idea be transferable to a large number of people?

We want to develop a model for higher education that can be scaled to support resettled refugees around the country. The US has taken in over 3 million refugees since 1975, following a long history as a country of asylum and refuge. Building on SNHU's experience developing a competency-based degree for American students struggling to access or complete traditional college programs, we are prepared to support large numbers of refugee learners across the US to pursue their higher education goals.

What are your immediate next steps after the challenge?

We want to continue to think through and explore new partnerships and existing innovations to further develop our model for refugee higher ed. We know from experience that partnerships are key to develop successful learning communities and in-person support structures, as well as bridging programs such as language classes. We also have questions around our model design that need further research and prototyping, such as our financial literacy and sustainability model. Then, piloting!


Join the conversation:

Photo of Lih-Hann Chiu

Hi Nina,

I would like to propose an approach that might help a resettled refugee obtain the $3,000 tuition required by the College for America.

An income share agreement (ISA) is a financial contract whereby a student can obtain financing for tuition today, and only begins to pay back if and only if he/she begins to generate income above a minimum threshold after the degree is earned. The amount to be payed back is a percentage of that income and only for a fixed number of years.

There are several benefits I see to the resettled refugee student:

1) they get the entire $3,000 up front (like a grant or scholarship), so no need to earn extra money immediately to pay for tuition.

2) this $3,000 is not debt, there is never accrued interest.

3) payment back to the money provider occurs only if the resettle refugee makes a minimum threshold income, so no forced payments if circumstances dire.

4) It aligns the money provider's interest with that of the resettled refugee. The money provider wants the refugee to get a high paying job - otherwise no payments occur. That being said, the contract can be done in such a manner that absolutely prohibits the money provider from unduly influencing the resettled refugee student's choice of career. The money provider can only help in the way the resettled refugee wants.

The success of microfinance organizations like Grameen Bank showed that traditionally underserved populations are extremely financially responsible, and capable of making great impact for themselves while providing a suitable financial return for money providers. In this spirit, the following is an example of how it an ISA might work:

Sponsor provides resettled refugee student ("RRS") with $3,000 for studies at College for America. Terms are that for 10 years after the RRS starts working, 3% of the RRS' post-employment tax income on every paycheck goes to the Sponsor, but only if the student earns at least $25,000 a year.

RRS earns an Associate of Arts in Healthcare Management degree after 1 year and immediately gets a job (perhaps even with the help of the sponsor) as a Medical Assistant with a starting salary of $30,000.

For the next 10 years, the RRS keeps the same job and only takes 1 year off in year 4 to start a family, and goes back to work beginning year 5. The RRS doesn't pay anything to the sponsor that year because the minimum of $25,000 annual income wasn't met.

Using the following assumptions (very conservative):
- 2% annual pay raise for the RRS
- 20% tax (RRS takes home 80% of salary after all taxes)
- 10% discount rate to factor-in investor cost

Under this scenario, the RRS' first year take home income after tax is $24,000 (80% of $30,000 salary), of which $720 (3% of $24,000) is paid to the sponsor. The RRS' last year (year 10) take home income is $29,973 (80% of $37,466 salary), of which $899 (3% of $29,973) is paid to the sponsor.

Over the course of 10 years (of which 1 year no payments are made), the sponsor receives $7,310 in payments from his original $3,000 "investment". That $7,310 is worth $4,420 in present value using 10% discount rate - giving the sponsor a extremely attractive return on investment of 47%.

The sponsor can be an individual, a local employer, or even the College for America - the key is that investing in education for RRSs using such a model can be very profitable.

I recently wrote a working paper that provides much more detail on the subject, including how protections for the student can be built into the contract - which is very important to avoid exploitative behavior.

Very interested in your thoughts.


Lih-Hann Chiu

Photo of Chrystina Russell

Hi Lih-Hann Chiu,

Thank you so much for reaching out. We had a chance to look at your paper, which sounds quite promising in terms of a financial model. We'd really love to learn more about your work and thinking--could we get on a call to discuss further?


Photo of Lih-Hann Chiu

Chrystina - apologies for just getting back to you. I'll reach out to you via LinkedIn to connect and follow-up. I can be found at:

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