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Developing a higher education model for resettled refugees: competency-based degrees for successful transition and employment

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

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Our idea 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 US-accreditation and the focus on professional skills development ensures 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 means that we can now make comprehensive, context-sensitive, and scalable higher education opportunities available for resettled refugees.  

Resettled refugees face many pressures after arriving to the US, and often struggle to integrate or to find meaningful employment. Most refugees begin working low-skill jobs to support their families immediately after arrival, and many struggle with the difficulties of speaking English as a second language in a foreign new country. As a result, resettled refugees often struggle to integrate amid these competing demands, and few are able to access opportunities or find the time commitment for study in higher education institutions. Refugee learners who manage to study in higher education institutions, including community colleges, often struggle to complete their degrees or to stay in school due to the lack of individualised academic support, inflexible learning models, and high costs.  

Yet many refugees - of all ages - are interested in pursuing further education on arrival to the US, and many arrive with some high school or tertiary education experience. In addition, there is strong evidence to suggest that expanding opportunities for resettled refugees to access AA & BA degrees supports them developing a solid foundation of employment skills and qualifications and establishing roots in a new country. A recent US report noted that policymakers need to improve access to education and mainstream jobs for resettled refugees.

It is evident that a traditional university learning model is not adequate for many resettled refugee learners - and this is also the case for many other learners as well. 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.

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 ended with mixed results, that pointed strongly to 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 that the Institute provides 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 country 2007—2014 and countries of origin include Bhutan, Sudan, Burkina-Faso, Cameroon, DRC. 50% had some higher education. One is projected to graduate within the next year, two progressed at a steady pace while the other three are moved more slowly. (The ability to set one’s own pace is part of CfA’s self-directed model, with coaches encouraging students in moving forward.)

Learnings from the pilot program were mixed, and will go a long way toward improving 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 to be successful 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 seek 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 learning 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 in increasing their skills and language levels in order to successfully pursue a SNHU - or another university - degree. 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?

We will first reach out to resettled refugees in the US, including from the original pilot program, as well as refugee students who have been resettled from our program in Rwanda to get feedback and suggestions to improve our idea. Then, we might 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 worked with the Humanitarian Innovation Project, a research group at University of Oxford conducting research on refugee innovation and livelihoods. I also worked as a tutor for resettled refugees in Pittsburgh - which began my interest in refugee education!


Join the conversation:

Photo of Priscilla

Hi Nina,
This sounds like a great project, and I think it is very much needed!
I think that the online teaching platform and flexible scalable program sounds perfect for the job.
I also wanted to ask how do you plan on breaking that English as a second-language barrier? Will you be providing English courses as a precursor to the higher education courses?
Also, you mentioned having a flexible model, however I was wondering what specific competencies you were planning on focusing on/providing for?
Again, this sounds like a great project! Best of luck!

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