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Higher education for resettled refugees: competency-based degrees for successful transition and employment

Resettled refugees lack opportunities for high-quality university-level education and employment in their new country of asylum

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Resettled refugees in the US struggle to integrate and to find meaningful employment after arrival. Almost all 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. Yet very few resettled refugees are able to access opportunities to study in higher education institutions, and even fewer are able to successfully complete degrees.

As a result, resettled refugees can become discouraged by the difficulties and expense of accessing higher education in the US. Many are working low-skill jobs to support their families, so they are not able to become full-time students, and many more struggle with the difficulties of being a learner with English as a second language. Resettled refugees who do study in higher education institutions, including community colleges, often struggle to complete degrees or stay in school due to the lack of individualised academic support, inflexible learning models, and the expense.

The need for more and better higher education options for resettled refugees is exemplified by the stories of a resettled Somali Bantu family in Pittsburgh, PA. When the family first arrived, the two eldest children worked hard to complete their high school degrees, with success. The eldest daughter was already past high-school age when she was resettled, but she was determined and completed her GED quickly, despite knowing almost no English upon arrival. After finishing her GED, she wanted to study nursing, and applied at a local community college. She was also eligible for a small local scholarship that helped her to cover tuition costs for her first term. She enrolled and began taking classes, using a computer at home to complete her assignments and going to campus 2-3 days per week. However, after only the first term she was told that she had to repeat 3 of her 4 courses, and in the second term she missed too many classes due to a pregnancy and her new baby daughter and was failed automatically.

Neither her guidance advisor or instructors reached out to her during this time, and she had no extra academic or ESOL support to help her in her college-level classes. She later told me that she wasn't even sure which classes to take in order to build toward a nursing degree, and that no one had been able to tell her. After this first year, she found that she was no longer eligible for the scholarship to support her studies because she did not complete 12 credits per term - she had to drop out because she could not afford tuition on her own. Was this a failure of the student or a failure of the higher education system to support resettled refugee learners?


The need for better support for resettled refugees to education has been recognised before, and a recent US report noted that policymakers need to improve access to education and mainstream jobs for resettled refugees. 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. Yet, as exemplified by the stories above, there is also strong evidence that a traditional university learning model is not adequate for many resettled refugee learners - as is the case for many other learners as well. The research for this idea explores the possibility of creating pathways towards fully accredited online, competency-based degrees for resettled refugees in a supportive and flexible program that accounts for their learning and emotional needs.

The data for the research phase of our idea is primarily 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. Recruitment efforts included several focus groups, information sessions, individual recruitment efforts and outreach to a variety of local organizations/groups that address refugee populations. A robust admission process was developed in order to identify those candidates that would have the best chance to succeed. They were required to complete a detailed questionnaire of personal information and past education experience, complete a “grit survey” developed by CfA coaches to project persistence, the Accuplacer for ESOL and math testing and a one-on-one interview. Twenty-nine students sought to be admitted into the pilot, with a total of twenty being accepted. Nine did not complete enrollment or withdrew because they did not receive Pell grants; five later withdrew because they felt they could not commit the time needed or did not feel the curriculum served their needs (particularly with those that already had a bachelor’s degree from their country of origin.)

All students were working 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. These findings include:

  • Providing every student with a computer has greatly contributed to their success. They require ongoing and expanded user training and technical support.
  • There is no evidence that country of origin has a measurable effect on CfA student success.
  • The dedicated IINE coach/coordinator was key to providing recruitment, orientation, onboarding and ongoing group and individual support sessions for students, working closely with the CfA coach and actively building the CfA academic community.
  • Diligent data collection on both sides is critical to keep honing the best model of support.
  • Well-staffed and regular ESOL support is needed even with candidates that have an advanced level of spoken English and are competent at written English. The candidates that have been in the United States 2+ years or arrive in the US with fluency are apt to be more successful.
  • Applying for federal financial aid is complex for this population, requiring much counseling, documentation and assistance in working through the whole process, as well as ensuring that student understand clearly what is a grant versus a loan to be repaid. We recommend bringing in volunteer experts in the FA process in order to support the following:
    • Students needed assistance in gathering the documentation needed for the application process, including the selective service forms, status notices, etc. As part of the enrollment process IINE should require students to attend an information session on Financial Aid or provide a webinar type experience. As so many students are unfamiliar with the process the material should be specific to their needs. The information sessions should be followed by FAFSA Support Sessions, in which program staff and volunteers with expertise should be on hand to walk students through the application process. This ideally could happen once the students have been issued a computer and done at the IINE office.
    • In addition, many students were confused once they received their award. Having follow up support sessions that walk students through their award would be helpful. For example many students received a Pell Grant, Unsubsidized Stafford Loan and Subsidized Stafford for approximately $15,000. It is critical that they understand the differences between each source of financial aid, the benefits, the risk and financial responsibilities. 

The CfA pilot program for resettled refugees also ran a focus group discussion with resettled refugees from Manchester, New Hampshire to learn more about how to support resettled refugees in pursuing accessing to online and competency-based higher eduction. The findings from this focus group include the following:

  • About 2/3rds of focus group participants had access to some sort of computer
  • About ½ have stable access to the internet
  • Most use the computer for social media - like Facebook - to watch videos, and communicate - email, Skype
  • Fewer use computers to create or work
  • About ¼ had a bachelor’s degree, and about ½ had some college. Most had a high school diploma or the equivalent
  • High level of interest and experience in science and math.
  • Most see an American degree as an opportunity to improve their financial stability, secure a better future for themselves and their families, and help people in their home country and here
  • Several indicated that they might stop working to concentrate on the degree
  • It appears that many could contribute $50-$100/month to the tuition. Federal financial aid might also be a possibility
  • Very few had taken online courses before 

The significant challenges faced by the CfA-IINE pilot in enrolling and maintaining students demonstrates the immense difficulty in successfully supporting resettled refugee learners in earning degrees, even with dedicated support and partnerships. However, the data and learning from this pilot has also paved the way for future programs by offering important lessons and understanding of approaches to help resettled refugee learners overcome challenges by offering effective support to students during the recruitment and enrollment, in particular around the financial aid process, as well as supporting academically and emotionally during their degrees.

Specifically, please check all that apply:

  • A group brainstorm
  • An Individual

Tell us about your work experience:

I'm the Director of Refugee Education Programs at Southern New Hampshire University. I'm currently working with our partner program, Kepler, to deliver higher education to refugees in camps in Rwanda through our innovative CfA degree. Many of our refugee students in Rwanda will have opportunities to be resettled to the US, and want to continue working on their degrees. I have also worked previously with resettled refugees in Pittsburgh, PA in support of their educational pursuits.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

There are over 65 million displaced people worldwide, including over 11 million displaced Syrians. Many refugees remain confined to camps and informal settlements for decades, waiting for opportunities to go back home that do not come. Resettlement is a dream that does not come true for so many refugees, but even for those lucky few, it is a struggle to integrate and to find opportunities for further education and employment, especially given disadvantages from years of displacement.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Lucy Chen

Do you know Kiron Open High Ed for Refugees?
The program started in Germany and now has several branches in Europe. It helps refugees to transfer MOOC credits to local universities.
I have been working with them over the semester. Let me know if you are curious about anything!

Nina Weaver 

Photo of Nina Weaver

Hi Lucy, thanks for this comment! Yes, we're very familiar with Kiron, and are very enthusiastic about the work that they are doing. We're also very excited by their recent expansion to Jordan to work with Syrian refugees - hopefully we can continue to learn from their initiative!

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