Global Talent Bridge Partner Blog

News on practice and policy affecting internationally trained immigrants and refugees

Increasing Access to Higher Education for Refugees: State Policy Solutions

Wednesday June 29, 2022 | by Fatima Sanz

In May of 2022, the number of people forced to flee conflict, violence, human rights violations, and persecution surpassed 100 million for the first time. Approximately 40% of these individuals are refugees. Data from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) shows that in 2020 around half of refugees worldwide were under the age of 18. Moreover, refugees are disproportionately underrepresented in all educational levels, with only 5% of refugees attending tertiary education, according to UNHCR.

Targeted state policy solutions can help address the urgent need for equitable access to education for refugees and other displaced people in the U.S. Several states have made progress in addressing barriers to educational pathways. Currently, eligible refugee students can access in-state tuition rates in twelve states: California, Colorado, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Expanded In-State Tuition Rates Improve Access for Refugees and Other Displaced People

In 2022, several states considered legislation to expand in-state tuition rates to refugees. Two of these states—Oregon and Vermont—enacted legislation. Under existing law in Oregon, public university students granted refugee status and special immigrant visa holders are eligible for in-state tuition rates. Oregon’s new law extends in-state tuition rates to individuals who are granted humanitarian parole, asylum, conditional permanent residency, or temporary protected status (TPS). Vermont’s new law expands in-state tuition access for refugees, parolees, and eligible special immigrant visa holders enrolled in the Community College of Vermont.

A bill introduced in California in 2021 to expand in-state tuition to refugees is still pending this year. The California bill would expand an existing law that provides in-state tuition rates to eligible special immigrant visa holders and refugees enrolled in degree programs at California community colleges. The proposed expansion would also extend in-state tuition rates to immigrants, refugees, and asylees enrolled only in a credit course for English to Speakers of Other Languages, outside of a degree program. The bill is currently pending in the California State Assembly.

Legislation introduced in four states aimed at expanding access to higher education for refugees and other individuals holding humanitarian-based visas did not pass during this legislative session. Georgia considered a bill earlier this year that would have provided access for refugees and special immigrant visa holders to in-state tuition in the state’s university system immediately upon establishing residency in the state. The legislation was based on recommendations made by the House Study Committee on Innovative Ways to Maximize Global Talent in 2021.

Proposed Legislation Aimed to Open Educational Pathways for Refugees

The Hawaii state legislature introduced a bill that would have established a temporary pilot program to offer tuition waivers for certain community college students, including refugees, parolees, asylees, and Cuban-Haitian entrants, starting in Fall, 2023. The bill did not pass out of committee. New York did not pass legislation that would have expanded existing State University of New York (SUNY) policy which provides tuition equity to eligible refugees, asylees and TPS holders by granting tuition waivers to certain special immigrant visa holders in the state.

Lastly, legislation introduced in Utah would have expanded existing provisions that grant asylee or refugee students access to in-state tuition to asylum seekers in the U.S. This legislation would have marked the first time that in-state tuition rates extended to asylum seekers who often face additional barriers as prospective students due to lengthy asylum cases.

State-Level Efforts Offer Encouraging Solutions

There is clear momentum at the state level. The number of states that have recently worked to ensure more equitable educational pathways signals growing recognition of the obstacles impeding refugees and other displaced people from access to higher education opportunities.

Recent conflict and natural disasters have resulted in a rapid increase in the number of people who are forcibly displaced. States across the U.S. can look to the significant progress in education access being made in Oregon and Vermont—as well as previous policy efforts across the U.S.—to develop their own reform and to ensure equitable pathways to higher education for refugees and other humanitarian visa holders in the U.S.

Fatima Sanz is the Senior Policy Manager for WES Global Talent Bridge.