In 2019, 78 percent of refugees worldwide were in a protracted refugee situation (PRS), meaning mass displacement affected their home country for at least five years. Fewer than one percent of these refugees are brought to safety through traditional third-country resettlement pathways. Thus, complementary pathways, like through educational institutions, are needed to provide more durable solutions, especially when only six percent of refugee students attend a higher education institution, compared to 40 percent of students across the globe. Institutions of higher education can help solve this education gap, while simultaneously offering safe passage from danger and access to rights in a third country.
This year, the State Department launched the Welcome Corps, a private refugee sponsorship program allowing Americans to sponsor incoming refugees through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). The Biden administration is expected to launch an extension to the Welcome Corps later this year that will allow colleges and universities to sponsor refugee students continuing their education. Indeed, colleges and universities are among the best-equipped institutions to support refugees during their transition to the U.S., with the program having received endorsements from prominent higher educational institutions, organizations, and associations.
Universities are ideal private sponsors because they can provide healthcare needs, emotional support, career counseling, and language-building opportunities. Many have diverse student bodies s that could welcome and support refugee students.
The U.S. Department of Education recently identified 3,931 Title IV degree-granting Postsecondary institutions that can welcome and support refugee students through third-country resettlement to the U.S. If just half of these institutions privately sponsored two students per year, at least 4,000 refugee students could benefit from a supportive community during their transition to American life.
From smaller cities like Bloomington, Indiana, and Albany, New York, to bigger cities like Chicago and New York City, both private and public higher education institutions across the country have demonstrated their capability and dedication to supporting refugee students in particular. As a country, we have proven our capacity to protect students from difficult backgrounds and countries in turmoil through special programs like Special Student Relief, which currently supports over 20,000 international students.
Students coming through private sponsorship through USRAP are eligible for federal financial aid and grants, but that does not preclude student groups from leading fundraising efforts to support room and board costs. University students in the U.S. and Canada have demonstrated their support before through peer-to-peer sponsorship models. But financial support for refugee students needn’t stop there; Universities can also explore other options, like offering discretionary tuition waivers and reaching out to alumni from the respective country and/or culture to be donors. Engaging faith communities and host families can help reduce housing costs and could further help with assimilation and a sense of belonging. Organizations already coordinating host families for international students can assist.
There is also considerable precedent for universities utilizing state funding resources to support refugee students. For example, Kentucky is piloting a program that provides funding to universities to support displaced students as part of its broader cultural exchange and workforce development goals and has moved forward with full implementation. Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon, Virginia, and Wisconsin have legislation granting in-state tuition to refugee students at public universities immediately upon arrival without a residency requirement.
American community colleges also offer many benefits to refugee students.. Tuition tends to be less costly and the option of vocational programming offers refugee students entry into the workforce more quickly. California and Vermont have already extended in-state tuition access at community colleges to refugee students who are not state residents.
Typically when refugees arrive in the U.S., they are given a short-term health insurance plan called Refugee Medical Assistance (RMA) which is available for up to eight months. Then, depending on income, a refugee may qualify for Medicaid or the Health Insurance Marketplace.Universities can expand their options by providing standard university health coverage for the duration of a student’s studies. This would come at an estimated $3,500 cost per student but could save university personnel time assisting a student to navigate government benefits.
A likely extension of the Welcome Corps will allow higher education institutions to sponsor refugee students. Universities should step forward with confidence, knowing they are some of the most-equipped private sponsors. Building bridges between people through education is essential to preserving human dignity and nurturing peace both on a global stage and in our backyard. The world needs well-educated, trustworthy, and compassionate dreamers who are empowered and equipped to become our leaders. American universities can be that bridge.