Recognising refugee qualifications

Immigration has arisen as a critical issue in the 2016 United States presidential election, yet the average US citizen may not know the breadth and depth of the immigrant population in the country and its contributions.

According to the Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey, immigrants comprised 12.5% of the total US population. At that time, immigrants came predominantly from Mexico and Asia. With rising instability in Middle Eastern and Islamic countries, new immigrant populations have emerged, many leaving desperate situations in haste and arriving in the US without complete documentation of their previous academic achievements.

Contrary to a widely held view, not all immigrants have little education. About one in three immigrants has either a US or foreign college degree.

The American Community Survey says that immigrants accounted for 15% of the entire US college-educated labour force in 2007. These numbers, however, were much higher among workers in certain occupations: immigrants represent nearly 27% of physicians, more than 34% of computer software engineers and over 42% of medical scientists. These important industries advance our quality of life and require a highly educated workforce.

As we watch the human tragedy of refugee migration, especially from places like Syria and Iraq, we ask what can be done to help people who have lost nearly everything when they fled for their lives.

Since many refugees and 'at risk migrants' – those who are forced to flee their country but who are not legally eligible for refugee protection – have already completed their education, it seems evident that if their achievements could be appropriately recognised, their lives in their new homes could be made easier. They could more quickly begin contributing to their new communities and society.

Barriers to recognising documents

Are these educated immigrants obtaining appropriate recognition for the education already completed? Are they gaining access to higher education institutions to complete education in progress, hone skills and obtain knowledge enabling them to enter a new field or complete a higher degree?

Lawrence Bell, executive director of international education at the University of Colorado Boulder, and I are examining how colleges and universities are addressing the unique problems facing refugees who are trying to gain admission to institutions of higher education in the United States.

These problems include missing or incomplete educational documentation, lack of verification cooperation from institutions or governments in countries from which they fled and minimal financial resources.

What does this issue look like for newcomers to this country? It might be a Somalian secondary school teacher who has no access to a document that confirms she completed a university programme. Without appropriate documentation, access is closed to university courses that would hasten her ability to re-enter her profession.

Many refugees have carefully transported educational documents on their arduous journeys to their new homes, but lack the financial resources to have those documents evaluated so they can be understood by US employers or professional licensing boards. A Syrian dentist cannot afford to have documents evaluated that would lead to sitting the examinations needed to begin the process of practising dentistry in the United States.

Possible solutions

Solutions to the problems facing refugees seeking admission to US institutions exist. Some include allowing alternative application processes, use of examinations or passing community college courses to establish levels of education, use of alternative documentation to confirm professional education, special accommodation for English language proficiency testing and faculty interviews.

Educational Credential Evaluators, Inc or ECE, a non-profit that provides foreign credential evaluation and resources for international admissions professionals, is addressing the financial barrier by partnering with resettlement agencies and institutions of higher education to identify needy refugees to provide evaluation reports paid for by donors through its ECE®Aid programme.

Through a survey of senior international officers at US institutions, we hope to uncover how applicants and students from countries in crisis are being served. In addition to creative and flexible admissions practices, we are examining what other types of support are being offered by higher education institutions.

Are refugees a group recognised as needing special student services on campus? Does the administration recognise this as an area worthy of attention? How does the wider campus community factor into this discussion?

On 19 September at the United Nations headquarters, 150 heads of state will discuss how to address the large number of refugees and migrants on the move across the world. Their deliberations will include frameworks for increasing scholarships and other academic and vocational opportunities for people forced to leave their countries.

If we expect to accommodate larger numbers of refugees and migrants at our institutions, we need to be able to understand and handle their unique admissions needs. By better understanding the challenges and best practices in place, we are convinced that US colleges and universities can enter into the national dialogue on refugees in a humane, positive and productive manner.

Margit A Schatzman is president of Educational Credential Evaluators, Inc or ECE® in the US.