Supporting Syrian refugee access to U.S. higher education

January 27, 2016
  • Displaced & Vulnerable Students
  • International Education
  • Records and Academic Services
  • A26BP
  • Displaced Students
  • vulnerable students
Group photo of students standing in front of a green chalkboard in a classroom.

The United States will accept at least 10,000 refugees from Syria in 2016, and many of those refugees will want to enter U.S. colleges and universities. Higher education professionals are facing questions about how to deal with the influx.

Last Thursday, AACRAO Webinars hosted the first webinar in a multi-part conversation on the Syrian refugee crisis and implication for U.S. higher education institutions—“Supporting Refugee Access to Higher Education Part I: Framing the Barriers.” The series will include additional webinars, as well as articles and sessions at the AACRAO 2016 Annual Meeting in Phoenix.

[Click here to register for the webinar and receive a link to view the archiveded video. More detail about this series at the end of this article.]

Last week’s introductory webinar was led by Annetta Stroud, Senior Evaluator with AACRAO International Education Services, and Monica Ibrahim, educational adviser for Syria with the U.S. Department of State’s EducationUSA network, both of whom will be presenting at AACRAO’s Annual Meeting in March.

Background and context

Stroud began the webinar with an overview of the recent history and relevant politicla context of the conflict in Syria. Stroud explained that antigovernment protests in 2011 led to civil war by early 2012, with both sides actively targeting civilians and public institutions, including schools. Millions of people have been internally displaced and millions more have fled the country, many seeking refuge and education in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. Stroud detailed the credentialing systems of both the Syrian regime and the opposition government, and offered tips for academic credential evaluators.

Six major barriers

Syrian refugees who make their way to the United States also face major barriers to access to education.

Some challenges for refugees include:

They may be difficult to identify in the application process. Because refugees are considered asylees, they are applying as a domestic student—not on an F1 Visa. "They may be invisible in the admissions process,” Ibrahim said. That can make it difficult for colleges to identify them.

They may not have proper credentials. Ibrahim highlighted the difficulty of obtaining accurate, current information from schools in Syria. 

“This population may have large gaps in their education, perhaps up to four years,” she said. They may be unable to obtain transcipts once they have fled. Some students may be denied access to transcripts due to evasion of mandatory military service or their political affiliation. There may be no way to verify credentials because the Ministry of Higher Education and Syrian universities cannot be dependably reached. They may also not be able to obtain letters of recommendation because many professors have fled the country.

It may be helpful if colleges can be flexible with requirements, such as using placement tests, standardized tests, course auditing to demonstrate readiness, or other accommodations in place of documentation, Ibrahim suggested.

They may not speak English. Offering intensive ESL classes prior to enrollment may be necessary.

They may face psychosocial barriers adjusting to life in the U.S. and dealing with trauma. Culturally, Syrians may not be used to asking for psychosocial support, or it may be considered taboo, Ibrahim noted. So it’s important to let students know early on what support is available, such as counseling resources, and to establish a larger support network that includes professors and other students, if possible.

They may face financial difficulties. Special scholarships and free housing can be helpful. Refugees will be eligible for financial aid via FAFSA and will need support from the financial aid office to understand their eligibility and navigate the financial aid process.

To listen to the entire archived webinar, register here. You'll receive an email with a link to the video and a link to download the associated PDF.

More resources

The presenters offered the following list of resources for those interested in learning more:

Education USA:


IIE Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis:

IIE Scholar Rescue Fund:


SAR MOE Baccalaureate Verification:


National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces:

Every Campus a Refuge:

Students Organize 4 Syria:


Refugee Map:


Registration will open soon for these upcoming webinars.

  • Thursday February 18 2pm ET -- Emergency Support for Syrian Students and Scholars: Holistic programming to address a higher education emergency

Description: The crisis in Syria continues to have a devastating impact on professors, university students, and the education sector. While the world struggles to meet the basic needs of the millions of Syrians displaced internally or living as refugees throughout the world, higher education is being neglected. In response, the Institute of International Education (IIE) has provided emergency assistance and educational opportunities to Syrian faculty and university students whose lives and academic work have been threatened due to the conflict. This webinar will provide an overview of the holistic support undertaken by IIE and their partners in support of displaced Syrian students and scholars worldwide.

Presented by IIE


  • Thursday February 25, 2016 2pm ET -- Supporting Syrian Refugee Access to Higher Education Part II: Practical Models for Admission & Documentation

Description: The U.S. has pledged to accept at least 10,000 refugees from Syria in FY2016. Of the more than four million Syrian refugees in the Middle East and North Africa, the Institute of International Education (IIE) estimates that as many as 450,000 are 18-22 years old. Is your institution prepared to welcome these students?  In the second of a multi-part series on the topic of Syrian refugee crisis, presenters will share practical models and experiences working through the challenges of students coming from this region in crisis.
Brenda Tooley, PhD, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Monmouth College
Gerald Doyle, Vice Provost of Student Access, Success, & Diversity Initiatives, Illinois Institute of Technology


Registration is open for the 2016 AACRAO Annual Meeting.

To explore related sessions and to register for the AACRAO Annual Meeting, March 20-23 in Phoenix, Arizona, click here.

AACRAO Annual Meeting Session: Refugees & Admission: What do domestic admission offices need to know about Syria and Why? 

The US is a leading resettlement country for refugees. For people living in conflict-embroiled nations, or those who are members of vulnerable social groups in countries around the world, resettlement is key to safety and the resumption of a normal life. In the fiscal year 2015, the US resettled 69,933 refugees, and this trend is likely to continue. As refugees, these students are eligible for federal aid and are likely to land in domestic admission offices that may not be equipped to serve them. 

This session will provide a set of tools and resources that a domestic office can use to help support the incoming Syrian refugee students as well las a framework to approach the support of any such migrant population. 



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