Changes Needed to Help Refugees in Wisconsin Access Higher Education

Job focus too limiting, study finds

January 17, 2019   |   By Karen Rivedal

Matthew Wolfgram

Matthew Wolfgram

A new study shows refugees who resettle in Wisconsin face a daunting array of barriers, both systemic and situational, in getting college degrees. But creative remedies could be developed, UW−Madison researchers say, to ease their path to higher education and then to better jobs.

“The obstacles are numerous and challenging, but when refugees receive support, they are able to resettle and access higher education,” says Matthew Wolfgram, a senior researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) in the School of Education.

“After all the struggles that refugees go through to get here, we need to set up a system to support their higher education so that they can flourish in their new communities,” he adds. “Many of the refugees who resettle in Wisconsin are highly motivated to continue their education but the obstacles that are currently in place stop them in their tracks.”

Failing to create new pathways is a tacit acceptance of a status quo driven by federal policy that too often limits human potential, he notes, shortchanging both the new arrivals and their adopted community by mandating that refugees find a job – almost any job – right away.

Wolfgram produced the new report on refugees as assistant director of WCER’s Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions (CCWT). He was joined by Isabella Vang, an undergraduate research assistant, and Chelsea Blackburn Cohen, a former graduate student and now a senior program officer with Scholars at Risk at New York University.

What most stood out about the study’s implications to Cohen, she says, was how federal refugee policy “focuses too narrowly on self-sufficiency and the rapid employment goal.”

The ongoing study, begun in May 2018, yielded preliminary findings from interviews with refugee-resettlement service providers and educators, observations of provider/educator work, and a survey of related policy documents. Work with more providers and educators is planned, along with the first interviews of refugees enrolled in higher education or recently graduated.

Prior systematic study of refugee access to higher education in the U.S. has been sparse to non-existent, Wolfgram says, as treaty requirements and resettlement policies both in the U.S. and abroad have long focused exclusive attention on primary and secondary education for refugee children. In addition, the pressing need of many refugees for basic services such as food, health and housing may have led to assumptions by scholars and even many service providers that higher education goals for adult refugees are overly optimistic or utopian, the report said.

But that doesn’t have to be the case, the CCWT researchers say.

“It is true that it is a herculean effort for refugees to try to resettle, obtain employment to support their families, learn English, and access higher education,” Wolfgram says. “But, in cases where educational supports are available for adult refugees, they have shown that they can be successful in college.” 

Refugee resettlement in Wisconsin now is concentrated in Milwaukee, Winnebago and Dane counties, with the top three countries of origin for 2016 and 2017 being Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. Prior to the Refugee Act of 1980, which set up the federal resettlement rules in effect today, the largest group of refugees resettled in Wisconsin were the Hmong, who started arriving in the mid-1970s and numbered 41,127 in Wisconsin in 2010.

Refugees most often are challenged, the researchers found, by federal rules that prioritize self-sufficiency through immediate employment rather than education. Other challenges include limited and rapidly diminishing state and federal cash benefits for refugees, coupled with a variety of different possible individual difficulties, such as health issues, poverty, not knowing how higher education is structured here, or lacking the required documents to enroll.

But improved processes and new partnerships between refugee-settlement service providers and universities could be designed to better support higher education for refugees, Wolfgram says. Living stipends from philanthropic organizations or other partners could supplement or replace government benefits -- thus eliminating the legal requirement that refugees always be working or seeking a job full-time, freeing up more of their time for study instead.

But even without new resources, he notes, universities could help by adopting more flexible policies on paperwork and credit transfers for refugees whose previous schools and colleges may have been closed or destroyed, along with the needed official transcripts or references.

“Refugees are handled like international students by admissions, but they have a really hard time satisfying the paperwork requirements,” Wolfgram says. “There’s a need to recognize that refugees are in a different situation. They don’t have the same transnational connections or affluence as some international students.”

Recently in Wisconsin, one refugee did have his foreign bachelor’s degree in social work recognized by a UW System institution and was able to start a master’s degree, the report says.

“Sometimes we get lucky like that,” a resettlement service provider in the report said. “His education was recognized, but that is not often the case.”


Long term, what refugees ultimately need are changes in federal policy, the report found. The number of refugees allowed into the U.S. by President Donald Trump’s administration has dropped sharply over the past two years, with deep cuts to federal resettlement funding that already was widely seen as not keeping pace with even basic needs since 1980, Wolfgram says.

As it is, resettlement-service providers must struggle to support the refugees’ college goals.

“They try to advise refugees on budgeting, on planning, on how to manage their expectations, and then gradually work toward the goal of college,” Wolfgram says, noting that resettlement services providers also provide referrals to others in the community who might be able to help. “But they really have to be job-focused. We feel that limits the possibilities of even thinking about higher education for many refuges.”

About CCWT: The mission of the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions is to conduct and support research, critical policy analysis, and public dialogue on student experiences with the transition from college to the workforce in order to inform policies, programs and practices that promote academic and career success for all learners.

About WCER: The mission of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research is to improve educational outcomes for diverse student populations, impact education practice positively and foster collaborations among academic disciplines and practitioners. It is one of the first and most productive education research centers in the world, helping scholars and practitioners develop, submit, conduct and share grant-funded education research for more than 50 years.