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Afghan refugees exit an U.S. Air Force plane after arriving in Kosovo in August 2021. Higher ed leaders are calling for the Biden administration to establish a new pathway for universities to sponsor refugee students.

Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images

A little more than a year ago, President Biden issued an executive order to revitalize the U.S. refugee program, and his administration subsequently articulated plans to launch a pilot program allowing private entities to identify refugees for sponsorship and support their resettlement. Higher education leaders mobilized in response, knowing this could create a college and university pathway for refugee students to resettle, study and stay in the U.S. The intervening year has only made the case for such a pathway more clearly, with lessons from welcoming displaced Afghan students to campuses illuminating the important role colleges and universities have in meeting a global need for refugee students’ resettlement.

As Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, university students and staff immediately became targets. U.S. higher education leaders reached out to colleagues and contacts in Afghanistan to support evacuation efforts for those at risk, especially Afghan women. Our institutions, Arizona State University and Bard College, assisted with departures and provided support for those who managed to flee. We now host at-risk scholars, activists and Afghan students at both of our institutions, working to build a makeshift infrastructure and support system during a crisis.

While we are grateful to be able to offer this support, our experiences welcoming these students make clear the current gaps in the way U.S. colleges and universities welcome displaced learners and make the case for a higher education pathway. If a policy and program infrastructure for colleges and universities to welcome refugee and displaced students had been in place, far more campuses would be opening their doors to Afghan students.

As we continue to respond to urgent needs of Afghan evacuees, and as we watch the unfolding situation in Ukraine, we must recognize that the challenge is far greater than just one country’s displaced population. Across the globe, forced displacement has approximately doubled in the past decade, increasing the number of university-aged youth who are passionate about continuing their education but lack the opportunity. Fewer than 1 percent of refugees worldwide are resettled each year, and only 5 percent gain access to higher education.

Thankfully, in the past year we have seen important momentum behind the concept of a new college and university sponsorship pathway. The recently launched RESPONSE Campaign: College and University Sponsorship of Refugee Students is a new campaign supporting expanded pathways for refugee students. And an accompanying report, prepared by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration and partners, including both of our institutions, contains recommendations for how the U.S. can develop, implement and sustain such a program.

Notably, the Biden administration also is engaging, hosting a White House meeting on colleges’ support for displaced Afghans, including students, and reiterating its intention to pilot a private sponsorship initiative. Sarah Cross, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, recently voiced specific support for a university sponsorship program for refugee students.

The time for the administration to act on private sponsorship initiatives, including university sponsorship, is now, especially since the administration just restarted refugee admissions following a temporary freeze last month. We each have seen firsthand examples of how supporting refugee students’ education is not only the right thing to, upholding and advancing core values of higher education, but also a smart thing to do, presenting an opportunity for forward-thinking colleges and universities.

ASU’s Education for Humanity initiative and Bard are helping lead the Refugee Higher Education Access Program, a pillar of the Open Society University Network. This program serves learners who require additional university-level preparation in order to transition into certificate or degree programs. With a foundation in East Africa and the Middle East but with global aspirations, this collaboration has helped many refugee students further their education while expanding our institutions’ partnerships, innovation and global mind-set. Refugee students bring unique insights and perspectives into the classroom, whether in discussions about the meaning of law and citizenship, the interpretation of literature, or the consequences of foreign policy. Refugee learners and their experiences prove invaluable for students and faculty alike.

We invite other higher education leaders to join us in these efforts, by continuing to support displaced Afghans through such initiatives as the Welcome Campus network, and by engaging in the RESPONSE campaign to create and sustain a new college and university sponsorship pathway for refugee students.

As our two examples demonstrate, support for refugee students’ higher education does not have to be limited to only one type of institution: ASU is a state university with one of the largest enrollments in the nation, while Bard is a liberal arts college with an enrollment of about 2,000. Despite our differences, we share in the commitment to refugee students’ education and recognize that now is the time—and the new university pathway the vehicle—to meet this global challenge facing higher education.

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