An Opportunity to Respond: Expanding Pathways to Education for Refugee Students

A photograph of students in a classroom. [1]

A new RESPONSE campaign aims to build support among universities for a private refugee sponsorship program that would allow refugee students to enter the U.S. and attend university at the same time.

In February 2021, President Joe Biden lifted the annual refugee resettlement limit to 125,000, well above the cap set by his predecessor. A little more than a year later, the Biden administration announced its plans to welcome  100,000 additional refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine.

These, and other, moves are part of a renewed push by the United States to increase the number of refugees it admits into the country. But they may not be enough. Some experts have warned [2] that without further adjustments to the country’s resettlement system, the U.S. will be hard-pressed to meet these new goals.

To increase the number of refugees admitted to the U.S., advocates are promoting the implementation of a new pathway for refugees. In May 2021, the Presidents’ Alliance on Immigration and Higher Education launched the RESPONSE Campaign to advocate for, design, and promote a new university sponsorship program. Under the proposed program, refugee students would be able to enter the U.S. and attend university provided that their institution “accepts [3] primary responsibility for funding and providing core resettlement services.”

“This is a mission we believe in deeply, one that presents an enormous opportunity for higher education, and a model that can change the lives of refugee students,” Miriam Feldblum, co-founder and executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, which is spearheading the campaign, stated during a campaign launch event [4] in December 2021.

But implementing the program will require significant changes, including adjustments to the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) and the creation of a national entity to coordinate stakeholders and the program’s activities.

The campaign aims to build support among universities for a private refugee sponsorship program similar to the one outlined by President Biden in a February 4, 2021 Executive Order. It would require that the pathways through which refugees are admitted to the U.S. be expanded. Notably, a new referral category would need to be added to the USRAP: Priority 4 (P-4), which would allow private individuals and organizations willing to provide funding and core resettlement services to sponsor the resettlement of refugees. The students resettled through the program would arrive in the U.S. with refugee status and be eligible to apply for permanent legal status after one year and citizenship after five years.

“College and university sponsorship of refugee students would meet an urgent global need, enrich campuses, and advance core values of higher education. This is the moment for the U.S. to embark on the essential next step in expanding refugee access to higher education,” Feldblum added.

A Much-Needed Change

The need to provide education and safety to forcibly displaced refugee youth is growing. Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, nearly seven million [5] Ukrainians have fled the country and eight million [6] have been displaced internally, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The latest UNHCR data [7] also indicates that more than 100 million individuals around the world have been forcibly displaced, the highest number ever recorded by the agency.

Still, fewer than one percent of refugees are resettled each year. And while 39 percent of students are able to access higher education worldwide, only a dismal 5 percent of refugee youth access higher education, according to the 2021 UNHCR Education Report, ‘Staying the course’ – The challenges facing refugee education [8].

A university sponsorship program could help increase those numbers. “As the global refugee crisis continues to grow, we are excited for the U.S. to embark on this essential next step to create a complementary pathway through private sponsorship. In addition to providing an opportunity for refugees to access higher education, it creates a way for colleges and universities to live out their missions, unleash the talent of refugee students, and expand the diversity and perspectives on campuses across the United States,” Laura Wagner, Presidents’ Alliance Initiative on U.S. Education Pathways for Refugee Students project manager, said.

The proposed university sponsorship program would supplement both the current student visa system and the USRAP, both of which are ill-adapted to the needs of refugee students. The process of applying for one of the existing student visa categories is complex and does not provide a long-term solution for refugees. The circumstances of refugees often make meeting student visa eligibility requirements difficult. For example, it requires applicants to hold valid passports and provide evidence of sufficient funds to maintain living expenses during their stay. Student visas are also temporary, so students must demonstrate that they will leave the U.S. at the end of their studies or shortly thereafter. At the same time, refugees who arrive under one of the three current USRAP refugee resettlement categories must often prioritize employment and self-sufficiency, leaving limited capacity and funds to enroll at higher education institutions.

“As someone who spent more than twenty years as a refugee, my hope was restored after accessing higher education. University sponsorship will help refugee students obtain a legal residence, increase diversity in different colleges and universities across the nation, and prepare these students for becoming excellent employees,” said Oscar Bahati, project associate for the initiative on U.S Education Pathways for Refugee Students.

Moving Forward

Even if the regulatory changes are made, implementing the program will not be easy. It will require close coordination among higher education institutions, the federal government, and overseas partners, among others. “For a small institution like ourselves, sometimes we have all the will in the world, but not necessarily the connection to the students in these crisis zones and\or to refugee students directly,” Erin Fitzgerald, director of the Center for Global Education and Fellowships at Salve Regina University said during the launch event.

For this reason, advocates are calling for the creation of an Implementing Organization (IO), a national entity that “would act as a bridge [9] connecting refugee students overseas, higher education institutions (HEIs) in the U.S., and the USRAP.” Among other responsibilities, the IO would identify and match qualified students with U.S. colleges and universities, evaluating their academic skills, including their English proficiency, and their eligibility for admission to the U.S. as refugees.

“What I see the potential in this program is, is through the Implementing Organization— through all the involved parties, non-governmental, and governmental, overseas. And inside the U.S., the opportunity there is for the student, the refugee student to experience this sort of seamless, fully sponsored comprehensive access to education,” Fitzgerald added.

Looking to Our Neighbors

Despite these difficulties, implementation is far from impossible. Similar programs have met with success in other countries. Since 1978, Canada’s Student Refugee Program [10], which started with one student at Carleton University, has since grown to support more than 2,200 young refugees. Around 85 percent of them found work in their fields after graduation.

A program in the U.S. could work as well. “There are now more than 100 million people who have been forcibly displaced around the world. We need new initiatives to ensure that those seeking refuge can access higher education. The university sponsorship program is an important step for the U.S. in welcoming refugees and helping them thrive here long-term,” said Esther Benjamin, CEO and Executive Director of WES.

But it will take political will. “We have to show moral leadership, especially as Americans, and we have to find things that we all, in a highly polarized political environment, can agree upon, and helping young people and providing them education is something that can be a common ground between people who otherwise disagree. So it is a necessity, a moral imperative on the part of universities,” Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, said during the launch event.

There’s Still Time to Sign On to Support Refugee Students.

We invite college and university presidents, chancellors, and other leaders to join the more than 100 leaders who have already signed on to the Statement of Support for Students and Scholars Fleeing from Violence and Humanitarian Crises [11]. Signing on sends a powerful public message demonstrating higher education leaders’ engagement and interest in supporting displaced and refugee students. Signing on does not commit institutions to enrollment or participation in programs for refugee students, but rather serves as an act of solidarity and support for policies that expand refugee access to higher education. The deadline to sign on is June 10, 2022.