University access for refugees: a comparative study of higher education policy in the U.S. and Germany


 Presenter (s) Emily Moore, University of Pennsylvania; Kelsey Ullom, University of Pennsylvania


This poster compares the current policies and procedures that affect refugee populations in their pursuit of higher education in the United States and Germany. The pilot study explores the following questions:

– What are the hurdles that student refugees face?
– What are the procedural barriers that encumber refugees’ access to higher education institutions (HEIs)?
– What HEI, government, and non-governmental resources and models support and hinder refugees’ pursuit of higher education?

The findings of this study show both effective ways to support refugees in their pursuit of higher education and burdensome practices that inhibit refugees’ access to higher education, as implemented by two prominent hosts of refugees. This comparative analysis uncovers areas for improvement and illuminates potential interventions that can be used by key policymakers in international education.

Relevance & Contribution:

According to the UNHCR (2019), there are 25.9 million refugees worldwide – a staggering number that represents the highest level in history. Of those 25.9 million, half are under 18; half still need access to education. Many efforts have been made to provide primary and secondary schooling to refugees. However, little has been done to facilitate access to higher education, which can support refugees’ career goals and help them find a sense of belonging in their host community. As a result, less than 3% of refugees ever enroll in a college or university, compared with 37% enrollment worldwide (UNHCR, 2019). In the discourse in higher education institutions (HEIs) surrounding diversity and inclusion, there is little attention given to the topic of refugees and their barriers to higher education, and not enough has been done to ensure that there is truly equal opportunity in higher education.

Two recent events – La Caravana (Latin American refugees) in the United States and the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe – provide an opportunity to examine what has been done to facilitate refugee access to HEIs. While the United States has taken an isolationist approach, significantly decreasing refugee admission since 2016, Germany has emerged as a leader, as evidenced by their being the largest European recipient of asylum applications in 2016 (Unangst, 2017).

7 Responses

  1. Amaris

    Thank you for this great poster on your pilot study! It is very insightful. From your interviews with administrators and work reading through previous literature surrounding refugee education efforts, do you think there is any potential for blending models 2 and 3 to find the sweet spot of both direct support and meeting students where there at academically? I’m curious if that blend could mitigate some of the weaknesses of both models.
    Additionally, what specific gaps do you think non-profit organizations can fill to support the work of HEIs in this realm?

  2. Great question about non-profits’ and HEIs’ work complementing each other to support refugees more fully. Considering funding limitations, at least in the U.S., I imagine this is critical. However, hopefully strategies and priorities are aligned.

  3. Amaris and Molly – Thank you for your insightful comments. I agree that a blend of the models would be ideal. Ultimately, it really comes down to how much funding, staff capacity, and prioritization of this issue there is for the institution.

    Regarding non-profit and HEI partnerships: Nonprofits and refugee resettlement organizations are familiar with the experience and cultural backgrounds of refugees and they can use this expertise to help colleges and universities design and implement effective support measures. In an article we wrote based on this research, we highlight a meaningful example of a mentorship program run by a resettlement organization that works closely with a large public university in the community.

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