Forced across borders edition

How American higher education is responding to the refugee crisis

A New Social Responsibility?

With all the talk of global student mobility, it can sometimes be easy to forget that for many young people, crossing borders is a matter of life and death. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are nearly 26 million refugees worldwide, half of whom are under age 18. Yet, only 1 percent of refugees ever have access to higher education.

American colleges shouldn’t look away from this global challenge, argues Bernhard Streitwieser, an assistant professor of international education and international affairs at George Washington University. He told me recently about his experience returning to his native Germany, where the government invested to help universities develop programs for the influx of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. Many of those strategies – such as language study, counseling, and mentoring – ultimately benefitted domestic and traditional international students, too.

“It’s a new social responsibility higher education has to have,” he says.

Streitwieser was an author of a report by the University Alliance for Refugees and At-Risk Migrants that sought to examine the ways that colleges can aid and advocate for refugees. It highlighted efforts such as Every Campus a Refuge, started at Guilford College, which provides resettlement support and free, temporary accommodations to refugee families in college housing.

In honor of World Refugee Day, which was June 20, here are how some colleges, professors, and students are working to help:

  • A professor at the University of California at Davis started Article 26 Backpack, which uses technology and face-to-face counseling to evaluate and document the educational experiences and skills of college-aged refugees. Piloted with refugees in Lebanon, the effort helps connect students to universities, training and scholarship programs, and employers. The project, which got a Ford Foundation Grant, is also supported by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and the American University of Beirut.

  • Arizona State University’s Education for Humanity initiative makes use of the institution’s expertise in digital learning to expand access to higher education and workforce training to refugees and other displaced persons. Through its 1+3 model, students get one year of ASU’s online programming in conjunction with a local NGO partner, which readies them to complete a bachelor’s degree. In Uganda, for example, a group of displaced students from South Sudan are preparing to matriculate into local universities.

  • A pair of graduate students at the University of California at San Diego have started One Digital World, a curriculum to teach digital literacy to women awaiting resettlement in refugee camps. Asylum seekers want skills that can help them become more self-sufficient, said one of the program’s founders.

  • Colleges in the IIE Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis provide scholarships to students whose education has been disrupted by the war in Syria. The travel ban has now made it almost impossible for Syrian students to come to the U.S. But here’s how a scholarship changed one refugee’s life.

This list is just a start – let me know what you or your institution is doing. I may share examples in future newsletters.

OPT Delays

Delays in processing work permits are leaving international students unable to start jobs or internships on time. Students are now facing wait times of up to five months to be approved for Optional Practical Training, the program that allows recent graduates to work in the U.S. for at least a year. Previously, the maximum wait time was 90 days.

Federal officials blamed growth in employment-authorization requests and pledged to return to standard wait times soon. This response puzzled me a bit – OPT volume routinely spikes around graduation time. And while the number of students taking part in the work program had surged in recent years, due in part to changes that had allowed graduates in certain STEM fields to stay for three years, the rate of increase had actually begun to slow.

Asking around, many college officials responsible for visa processing theorized that this might be an effort by the Trump administration to gum up the works and to be less welcoming to international students. But the fact is, no one knows because stakeholder engagement by Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that deals with OPT approvals, has all but dried up, I was told. CIS has turned down invitations to speak at the NAFSA conference for the past two years – despite the fact that this year’s meeting was in D.C.

Regardless of the reason, the delays have become a headache for overseas students. Abigail Borchert of the University of Rhode Island articulated the central problem:

The visa regs set out a specific (and pretty limited window) in which international students can apply for work authorization. If the window is closing before they get that approval, the system isn’t working.

Around the Globe

American colleges had their worst showing in years in the new QS Global University Ranking. Is this another sign of a hit to U.S. higher ed’s worldwide reputation?

Georgetown and Texas A&M have been ordered to hand over years of financial records as part of a federal investigation into foreign money going to American colleges.

Meanwhile, MIT has been criticized for accepting funding from a Chinese artificial intelligence firm that has ties to police in China’s Xinjiang region, where a security crackdown has drawn international condemnation.

A Kenyan court has found three Islamic militants guilty in a 2015 attack against a university that killed 148 people, mostly students.

China will bar students from taking AP history exams, starting next year.

British academics have accused the Home Office of racism for denying or delaying visas to African researchers.

Pakistan’s government has ordered huge cuts to higher education, which could lead to layoffs, fee increases, and cuts to research funding.

To correct for gender bias, a top European engineering university will only consider female candidates for job vacancies for the next 18 months.

Recent immigrants are more likely to have college degrees than U.S.-born Californians, according to a study by the Public Policy Institute of California.

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An International (Student) Bailout

State disinvestment in higher ed led public colleges to make cuts that affect degree attainment at both at the undergraduate and graduate level, new research shows. In the long term, stagnating appropriations could also diminish research capacity.

What helped some public universities remain whole? Say it with me now: The enrollment of out-of-state and, especially, international students. In fact, an earlier study by the same researchers draws an even bigger connection, finding that declines in state appropriations resulted in an increase in foreign enrollments at flagship universities and research-intensive institutions. I talked to one of the authors about the growing interrelationship between public funding and international enrollments.

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And finally…

U.S. intelligence officials paint Chinese Students and Scholars Associations as a sort of Trojan horse to infilitrate American campuses. The reality, writes Shen Lu in the New York Times, is often much duller:

The image of these organizations serving as the pernicious hand of the Chinese state, reaching into the heart of American academia, is hard to square with what most Chinese students know as the mundane nature of these clubs. This is not to say that CSSAs are innocent, or independent. …But as Americans grow increasingly alarmed about Chinese student organizations, it’s worth offering a more complex picture of just what these groups do. The answer is often: not much.

Shen’s perspective as a journalist and former Chinese student brings some necessary nuance to a subject that’s often lacking it. Also great is a thread she pulled together of various responses to her piece:

And, no, I’m not just saying that because she included my take!

’Til next week – Karin

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