University of Wisconsin–Madison

Time to consider higher education for refugees

The Trump Administration recently announced the Presidential Determination for the new fiscal year, which sets the ceiling for the number refugees admitted through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. The determination dropped the ceiling from 45,000 refugees to its historic low of 30,000. But, as low as these numbers are, given the high international need for refugee protection and resettlement, the U.S. State Department reports that only 20,918 were resettled in 2017. That number is well below even the amount of refugees resettled during the most recent historical period of high anti-immigration nationalism, which was the two years following the September 11th terrorist attacks.1  

During this period of reduced refugee admission, Wisconsin’s refugee resettlement providers, educators, and community organizers are focused on supporting the refugees that are currently in our communities, as well as the few that are arriving, by maintaining the institutional knowledge and community networks necessary to support refugee resettlement. 

We argue that we use this time to plan for a refugee resettlement process that can help realize a more open society; one that can support the flourishing of those we welcome to our communities. As part of this process, we at CCWT are conducting research to document the pathways and obstacles to higher education for refugees in Wisconsin. There is very limited research on higher education for refugees in countries of ultimate destination such as the U.S.2 But, the fact is that many refugees come to the U.S. with a goal of going to college and manage to achieve that goal despite the obstacles they face.  

For this research, we are conducting extensive interviews and observations with refugee resettlement providers, educators, and community organizers who support refugees. Our preliminary findings indicate considerable obstacles for refugees who are oriented towards college. 

College education for refugees in the U.S., as one resettlement provider explained, “[Is] really hard. There are a lot of challenges. And the fact is that they need to get a job.”  

Refugees with college credits and credentials that they earned prior to resettlement sometimes lack the official copies of transcripts and other documents to authenticate their applications for college; in other cases, the former colleges are closed, destroyed, or not accredited. Some refugees are resettled from countries with public financing of higher education—and the “sticker shock” of an American college degree can be overwhelming for refugees who typically have a very high level of economic need. And another major obstacle that many refugees face is the challenge of learning English, and academic English in particular, in order to obtain admission to college and to learn.  

Such obstacles are considerable, and there are others. But, on a more fundamental level, an emerging theme of our research is that the time-framework of refugee resettlement is a serious obstacle for refugees who are considering college. College takes time—and for refugees who persist towards college it often takes several years of hard work to even start the process.  

The language used by refugee resettlement providers reflects this extended time framework. While discussing the “success story” of one Iraqi refugee, who was able to learn English, finish high school, and begin at a technical college, his resettlement service provider explained, “It takes time, and a lot of work. That family has been here for three or four years now. But he’s doing pretty good now. He just started going to school; he is doing pretty good.”  

And yet, refugee resettlement timelines are highly structured and time-delimited, with many and various meetings, applications, and procedures that must be completed within the first 90 days after resettlement. After this time, refugees transition to public service programs which diminish over time and are often contingent upon the refugee pursuing full-time employment. While resettlement service providers, educators, and community members work hard to support the college attainment of refugees in our communities, we are finding that the highly structured and time-delimited framework of resettlement effectively thwarts and complicates this process.  

It’s time to consider and make plans for a refugee resettlement program that can support higher education for refugees. And as the US body politic reclaims the values of an open society that is welcoming of refugees, and the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program is called upon to serve its purpose of supporting the integration of refugees into our communities, we argue that a renewed focus on re-structuring the resettlement process to include the time and supports for refuges to access college can help facilitate that process.

  1. Davis, J. H. (Sept. 17, 2018). Trump to cap refugees allowed Into U.S. at 30,000, a record low. New York Times
  2. McBrien, J. L. (2005). Educational needs and barriers for refugee students in the United States: A review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 75(3), 329-364; Dryden-Peterson, S. (2012). The politics of higher education for refugees in a global movement for primary education. Refuge: Canada’s Journal on Refugees, 27(2).

Dr. Matthew Wolfgram is an anthropologist of education and Assistant Director of CCWT. Isabella Vang is an Undergraduate Research Assistant at CCWT. 

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