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Pursuing higher education is often a pathway to higher income and overall better well-being. College graduates are less likely to rely on public benefits. Therefore, it’s beneficial for education leaders and policymakers to help newcomers – including asylum-seekers and refugees – to access higher education in the U.S., whether it be community college, taking advanced English courses, obtaining a certificate through training programs or going to a four-year university.
Despite these clear benefits, we have found that higher education can often be an elusive goal for people who’ve fled their homeland in search of a better life in the U.S.
We all study policy and education issues that affect refugees. Over the past year and a half, the three of us – Kerri Evans, Ishara Casellas Connors and Lisa Unangst – teamed up to learn more about higher education pathways for refugees, asylum-seekers, recent Afghan parolees and people with temporary protected status, in the Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. area.
We partnered with Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area, one of the largest refugee resettlement agencies on the East Coast. We as researchers established a community advisory board of local refugees and other immigrants to guide the research process.
While our findings have implications for all refugees and asylum-seekers, we see our findings as particularly relevant for the nearly 77,000 Afghans who entered the U.S. with temporary immigration statuses from 2021 to 2023. Most arrived with parole status, which allows temporary stay and work in the U.S. for only two years. After that, renewals are needed. Parole status confers no option for lawful permanent resident status, unlike what happens when people fleeing their homeland arrive with official refugee status.
Enrolling in college can be difficult for this population because of the uncertainty of their immigrant status and future in the U.S.
Obstacles to higher learning
To identify the barriers to higher education for refugees in the Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., area, our research team interviewed 82 immigrants, all of whom were over 18 at time of arrival in the U.S., and two-thirds of whom were from Afghanistan and arrived since 2021.
We also interviewed 22 people who work for the Lutheran resettlement agency, the majority of whom were refugees or other immigrants who were resettled through the program in prior years. In reviewing the findings with the research team, the community advisory board implemented an additional survey to enhance our research by using both qualitative and quantitative data. Forty-three people – ages 22-55 – who would like to attend college in the U.S. chose to answer the survey, and 37 of them were from Afghanistan.
Through our research, we identified three main barriers for adult asylum-seekers and other immigrants who wanted to go to college or get advanced degrees.
1. Getting their degrees recognized
The process of getting degrees recognized is lengthy, difficult and involves a fee for immigrants.
More than half of participants experienced a barrier with either certifying the degrees they already earned back home or with curriculum requirements that differed from those of their home country. For instance, U.S. colleges may not accept high school and college degrees from other countries. Or participants may not meet all of the requirements for internships or to take specific courses in the U.S.
A female resettlement staff member who is from Afghanistan explained that the problem is having documents from their home country, such as diplomas and work credentials, evaluated here in the U.S.
“For example … let’s say, they have their bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in Afghanistan,” the resettlement staff member said. “But when they arrive in here, somehow, (the degrees are) lost,” she continued, explaining that immigrants often choose to attend college all over again and get the degree in the U.S.
2. Insufficient guidance
Half of the Afghan migrants we interviewed indicated they would like more help applying to college and graduate school programs than they’re getting.
Without guidance, many said they had lost precious time trying to navigate the higher education system. Some said they wanted more help with writing college application essays. Two-thirds of the Afghans wanted a personal connection with university alums or professors who could guide them through the college application process and be a mentor during their time in college.
Newly resettled refugees and others who were forced to flee their country struggle to pay their bills as they restart their lives in the U.S. Often they are relegated to low-wage jobs.
Nearly three-quarters of the 43 migrants said they couldn’t afford college tuition for themselves. About two-thirds indicated they would need information about scholarships and other financial resources in order to reconsider applying for college – information that is not always easily available for those who aren’t graduating from high schools in the U.S.
“I have to pay for rent. I have to pay for a car. I have to pay for oil. I have to pay for everything,” said one male from Afghanistan, reflecting on the fact that there is no money left for tuition payments. “Whatever I’m earning is a zero.”
Another male from Afghanistan observed: “We do have families. We have to support them, and at the same time, education fees are so high here.”
To overcome these barriers, our research team and community advisory board members recommend the following strategies:
• Identify scholarships for which immigrants and refugees would be eligible and share them with those who are interested.
• Educate resettlement staff on the nuances of legal status for in-state tuition so they can help asylum-seekers and refugees to determine if they are eligible.
• Recruit mentors to help asylum-seekers and refugees apply to college.