Refugees and Higher Education

By Arielle Schultz, Blum Summer 2017 Intern

Since 2015, millions of refugees have fled their homes, destroyed by violence and conflict, and sought safety in places like the E.U., Canada, and the United States. Unfortunately, this displacement means that millions of individuals have not only lost their homes, but have had their entire lives disrupted, including their education. This is severely problematic. According to the UNHCR, “only 50 per cent of refugee children have access to primary education, compared with a global average of more than 90 per cent…[and] fewer than one per cent of refugees attend university, compared to 34 per cent at global level.¹”

Many individuals who are now refugees left behind their education and careers at high skill levels. They worked in urban centers and studied at rigorous universities. The Foundation for Economic Education found that 9.4% of Syrian refugees have attained post-secondary levels of education. They also note that while this number is rather low, 56% of refugees are younger than age 20, so as a population they are still relatively well-educated.²

In any society, better-educated populations result in greater economic growth. Thus, for regions taking in refugees, it is to their advantage that those refugees have access to education. Since many refugees have already completed secondary and post-secondary education at reputable institutions, there is consequentially a need to make a place for refugee students at universities in places like America and Europe.

Many countries including Germany, the UK, and Japan have already engaged in efforts to facilitate refugee enrollment at their universities. Japan has agreed to accept 150 students over 5 years. Germany has highlighted the language barrier as an obstacle to education access, and has therefore focused on offering classes in German language along with prerequisites for more advanced courses of study in several fields. Here in the United States, the Institute for International Education has shaped the IIE Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis, a group of several American schools committed to accepting refugee students and offering them scholarships and financial aid.³

There are numerous obstacles inhibiting refugee students from enrolling in American universities. The largest is financial; U.S. schools are very costly, and refugees often do not qualify for in-state tuition at public schools. The application process also impedes refugee participation at U.S. schools. These students cannot always provide documents such as official transcripts. The documents themselves could have been lost or destroyed, or students may have to physically return to their schools to obtain them, which would put them at risk for arrest or detention.

The Blum Center is currently working on developing a program that would encourage and facilitate local refugee student enrollment at UCI. While this program is still in the very early stages, we are looking at what has worked at other American colleges to determine what would be most successful here. For example, the online course platform Coursera, which UCI already uses, has a program allowing refugees to take courses for free. Other potential ideas include the following:

  • Working with local high schools to find students who are prepared and interested in attending college, and who would be eligible for in-state tuition benefits
  • A flexible admission process, including using interviews to evaluate candidates in lieu of letters of recommendation, accepting unofficial transcripts or copies of documents, and using methods besides SAT scores, ACT scores, and GPAs to assess academic achievement and ability
  • Providing students with an application they can print and download as an alternative to an online application — they may not have reliable internet access at home
  • Helping students and their families understand the financial aid application process at the state and federal level
  • English tutoring to ensure students can succeed in college-level courses conducted in English
  • On campus support after matriculation, including counseling, a specific orientation, connecting refugee students to international students, encouraging students to get involved on campus through jobs and activities, events specifically for refugee students throughout the year, and help with finding summer internships and opportunities
  • Getting other UCI students involved through student organizations, a related for-credit course, themed housing for both refugee and non-refugee students

Want to learn more? UCI’s Refugee Awareness Week takes place from January 16–19, 2018.

See the full calendar of Refugee Awareness Week events on Facebook.

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