Tim Carroll, IES-PIRT fellow and PhD student in Higher and Postsecondary Education, Department of Administration, Technology, and Leadership, was a panelist at “Working Across Sectors to Support Vulnerable Youth in Schools” on Friday, June 1. Read our Q&A below and then watch him discuss these important issues with the other panelists.
What’s something everyone should know and understand about college access for youth from refugee backgrounds?
Many of the challenges students from refugee backgrounds face are familiar to non-refugee students: rising college costs, the bureaucratic tangle of the admission and financial aid processes, the logistical challenges inherent in balancing academic demands and family responsibilities. You can look at strengths and support systems in a similar way. For example, family and community support are an integral part of college success for many refugee students and many non-refugees. So if we work to better support students from refugee backgrounds—perhaps by expanding access to health services or developing better navigational support for those who may be the first in their family to go to college in the United States—we will see broad benefits for higher education.
At the same time, students from refugee communities and their families do have unique experiences that can shape their educational pathways, motivations, and resources. We need to listen to students, seek to understand those experiences, and adapt our practices accordingly. We also need to continue working to build a diverse faculty and staff that is prepared to support the needs and strengths of students from a wide range of backgrounds.
Why is there a lack of large-scale quantitative research on college access for refugees?
We don’t have many large-scale data sources that distinguish individuals from refugee backgrounds. Administrative records (like a school district’s student database) may identify immigration status, but this is of limited use since refugees are required to apply for permanent resident status after they’ve been in the US for a year. These records are unlikely to help if we want to identify students from refugee backgrounds who have lived in the US for several years, not to mention second-generation students who were born in the US to refugee parents. And longitudinal, national-level surveys like those administered by the U.S. Department of Education have tremendous value, but they tend to keep things very simple when it comes to immigration: Was this student born in the United States, yes or no? There are very good reasons why a researcher might choose not to press for detailed information about immigration status, but we do miss some of the richness and diversity of the student population when we group together everyone who was born outside the US.
Some researchers have tried to mitigate these data challenges by using information like nationality and language, combined with general information about refugee demographics, to identify individuals likely to be refugees. These alternative approaches to quantitative research—in concert with qualitative work and collaborations with students, families, and community organizations—can help us learn more about the educational pathways and experiences of refugee students at the state or national level when we don’t have perfect data.
How can teachers, policymakers, and researchers emphasize the strengths of children from immigrant and refugee populations?
We have to embrace a sense of awe toward students’ everyday accomplishments. Someone who is simultaneously going to school, mastering a second (or third or fourth) language, helping her younger siblings with their homework, and helping her parents manage household affairs because she’s more confident in her English than they are—this is an incredible student. If she’s also at the top of her class, that’s great, but we really don’t need to know her GPA to be in awe of her.
Everyone deserves the opportunity to support themselves and their loved ones, to push themselves intellectually, to explore new realms of knowledge. A college education is not the only way to do these things, but it’s a pretty good one, and a college degree is increasingly important for maintaining a basic level of economic stability. As educators, practitioners, and policymakers, there are many structural changes we can make that will help clear the way for students to thrive, but I believe that we will be in a better position to do so if we hold onto a sense of wonder at the daily brilliance of the students we serve.