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The Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration is leading a campaign to build support and offer a vision for a proposed college and university sponsorship program for refugees.

The alliance, an association of college leaders that advocates for immigration policies that welcome undocumented, immigrant and international students, released a report last week with recommendations for developing such a program.

The recommendations in the report are predicated on the assumption that the U.S. government will move ahead as expected in creating a new pilot program that would allow entities such as universities to accept the primary responsibility for funding and providing core resettlement services for refugees. A recent U.S. Department of State report said the government plans to launch such a program early next year.

UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, estimates that only about 5 percent of refugees worldwide are able to access higher education. While some universities offer scholarships to refugee students who come to the U.S. through the normal student visa system, the report argues that student visas—also known as F-1 visas—are not well suited to providing a “durable solution” for refugees.

“Student visas are, by legal definition, temporary: the student must prove that they are entering the U.S. in non-immigrant status and do not have an intent to immigrate,” says the report, which is based on deliberations from representatives from about 60 different organizations. “F-1 students must also demonstrate that they can cover all their educational and living costs for the duration of their program. Thus, the F-1 visa does not, as currently designed, provide durable protection to refugees who enter the U.S. as international students.”

“This is the moment for the U.S. to embark on the essential next step in expanding refugee access to higher education,” the report argues. “The need for additional legal pathways for refugees is vast, and the disparity in access to higher education, immense. Today, there is not only a clear policy opportunity to make university sponsorship possible, but there is also momentum and support from funders and higher education institutions to enable it to successfully launch, grow, and embed itself in campuses and communities across the U.S.”

The report makes the case that a university sponsorship program should augment, rather than supplant, existing government-assisted refugee resettlement initiatives.

The report proposes that a central “implementing organization”—most likely a nonprofit organization—act as an intermediary between overseas applicants and participating colleges. It recommends that higher education institutions interested in sponsoring refugees commit to covering the costs of at least partial tuition, but ideally full tuition, as well as the costs of on-campus housing, a dining plan and health insurance for the duration of a student’s program.

The report also recommends that participating institutions “agree to flexible admissions policies for refugee students that take into account their unique situations, like waiving the SAT or ACT requirement and accepting more flexible English proficiency exams, such as the Duolingo English Test and create campuswide committees to help refugee students integrate into the college community and access the services they need. The report suggests students should study full-time and have access to the full complement of campus services, including mental health services.

A university sponsorship program should have the possibility to admit both individual students as well as students with family members, the report states.

“While it may be challenging logistically and financially to include students with families in the initial phases, the program should aim to accommodate families,” it states. “To achieve greater gender equity, the program must strive to include women who may have spouses or children and who want to pursue an educational degree.”

The report envisions scaling up such a program, beginning with fewer than 30 students and 10 higher education institutions in the first two years and serving more than 500 refugee students after five years. Doing so would not be cheap. The report estimates per-student costs could range between $41,450 to $103,100 for the first year of study, and $38,350 to $98,400 for the remaining years of study, with costs including travel, books and supplies as well as tuition, room and board, and support for internships.

“The Initiative identified the following potential sources of funding for this program: government, institutions of higher education (endowments, faculty, students, alumni, etc.), philanthropy, faith-based organizations, corporations, and U.N. agencies and affiliates,” the report states. “The array of sources point to an approach that incorporates a diversity of funding sources.”

Laura Wagner, project manager for the Initiative on U.S. Education Pathways for Refugee Students at the Presidents Alliance, said the initial goal of the campaign is to spread awareness of the university sponsorship model “so that communities and current college students as well as higher ed institutions know and understand what university sponsorship is, so that they’re prepared to their assess their campus to see if it’s something they’re willing and interested to participate in.”

“The goal is that over the next eight months, the Presidents’ Alliance, along with many of the organizations that participated in the initiative, will start to look at how do we determine who is best to be the implementing organization and how to build that program infrastructure so we can start recruiting students within 2022,” Wagner said.

While such a program would be new to the U.S., other countries, including Canada, have similar programs already in place.

Christopher Boian, a spokesman for UNHCR, said the U.N. refugee agency “enthusiastically supports” the U.S. campaign. “It’s in line with the kinds of things that our organization has been really advocating for for years, with governments around the world,” he said. “We think it’s something that has the potential to lead to some very strong and exciting breakthroughs for all involved, starting with refugees.”

“This is the country with the many of the best and many of the wealthiest colleges and universities of any country in the world,” Boian said. He said the proposed sponsorship program will bring the private sector and private money into helping refugees access higher education “to rebuild their lives in safety and dignity and become the people they want to become.”

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