As one I am fragile, together we are strong." Mural outside the Amman, Jordan headquarters of the UNHCR. (Photo by Kim Gittleson)

In 1940, a young refugee named Arno Penzias fled Nazi-controlled Germany and settled in New York City. He went on to study at the City College of New York and Columbia University, where he received a Ph.D. in physics in 1962.

Upon graduation, he was hired at Bell Labs, where he and partner Robert Wilson were tasked with building ultra-sensitive microwave receivers. Their handiwork ended up being so powerful that they accidentally picked up mysterious radio signals. These turned out to be the cosmic microwave background that provided the first confirmed proof of the Big Bang Theory.

Penzias was incredibly fortunate: He accidentally found proof of the origins of our universe, one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century that netted him a Nobel Prize in 1978. But his lucky break was not that he found the cosmic microwave background. Rather, it was that he was given the opportunity to pursue higher education in the first place.

World War II displaced approximately 20 million worldwide. Only a handful of those individuals were afforded the opportunity to study in America. “Education turned me from a poor refugee kid into a quite prosperous and well-supported scientist and a member of the upper-middle-class,” Penzias said in 1980.

Despite such success stories, current US refugee policy may prevent the future Penziases of the world from attending US universities. President Donald Trump’s executive order restricting refugees and immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, which is currently stayed in the courts, would take the country back to the 1940s, to a shameful time when many refugees were turned away to their doom.

Inspired by the story of Columbia graduates like Penzias and the deteriorating political discourse about refugees, we, along with several other students at Columbia Business School, initiated a study in the spring of 2016. It focused on the financial cost of refugee higher education and the potential economic gains. We wanted to answer the question whether an investment in refugee education could pay off.

Desperate for help

Today the world is facing the largest migrant crisis in human history: More than 65 million people—nearly one percent of the world’s population—are displaced as a result of conflict. While the demands of survival have taken priority, the large and unaddressed educational needs of this population are astounding: The United Nations estimates that there are at least 200,000 Syrians who have had their post-secondary education interrupted as a result of the conflict.

This interruption is not just a personal catastrophe, it has devastating economic repercussions as well. A college degree is necessary for anyone looking to pursue skilled work in the global economy. Over a lifetime, workers with a bachelor’s degree earn $1.2 million more than those who have only a high school diploma. Yet the United Nations estimates that while 34 percent of eligible youth globally are enrolled in tertiary degree programs, just 1 percent of displaced persons have access to higher education. Displaced persons who were on a path toward a college degree inevitably find themselves on a different path, with an economic outcome significantly lower than what they are capable of achieving.

Allowing 200,000 refugees who would have been able to earn the wage premium associated with higher education to be permanently stuck at a level below their earnings potential leads to an economic loss that runs into the billions of dollars. Investing in helping these people achieve their potential via education can allow for an economic gain that helps not just the United States but also the region, when and if they are able to return to rebuild Syria.

We ran the numbers on a micro level at Columbia to see if this is something that could be done at a US university. Our economic model forecasts the costs of an education at Columbia University against the median earnings of our graduates—with the assumption being that displaced persons would either work in the United States upon graduation, or return to their country, in which case they would provide much-needed leadership skills in the rebuilding process. For graduates working in the United States, a Columbia degree leads to median starting salaries of, on average, $58,000 for undergraduates and goes up to $125,000 for business school graduates. We found that by focusing on degrees with high earnings potential business, engineering, and other STEM fields—a university graduate can cover the cost of higher education in as little as four years of employment post-graduation. This suggests that the costs of educating this population, while steep initially, particularly at Columbia, is not necessarily inconceivable.

A pilot is born

Although the need is clear, the details of the problem are hard to pin down. After conducting initial research to assess the scope of the problem as well as the potential economic upside, the team was confronted with one important challenge: No one has any consistent data regarding the potential size or educational qualifications of the refugee population in need of higher education. Magnifying the challenge, it is also unclear where those who have had their higher education plans interrupted are living.

The team traveled to the Middle East to see what insights we might be able to gather while in Lebanon and Jordan—two of the countries that have absorbed the largest number of Syrian refugees. Using connections from Columbia’s Global Centers, alumni in the region, and various other channels, we met with more than 60 stakeholders, including State Department attaches, UN agencies, government officials in Lebanon and Jordan, local educational institutions, and NGOs.

We heard conflicting feedback, but the one clear message from all our meetings was that everyone in the region was desperate for help from US universities, with their extraordinary educational resources, to do something to curtail the tremendous loss of human and economic potential from the Syrian crisis.

We returned to Columbia determined to set up a pilot program. We knew we faced many challenges, including finding eligible applicants, obtaining visas, and, most crucially, securing funding.

In the United States, the average yearly cost of a four-year private college, including room and board, is $43,921. Since no US federal aid is provided to international applicants, there is often very little financial support available to foreign students at an undergraduate or professional graduate level.

In our case, we calculated that the overall cost of educating an initial cohort of six displaced students at Columbia University would exceed $1 million. During the summer of 2016, we met with administrators at Columbia’s 20 schools to secure tuition discounts. We learned that the more people committed to financial support through tuition discounts or funding, the more others, including donors, became interested in providing further assistance. This created a virtuous circle, allowing us to raise funds to cover not only tuition, but also housing and living costs, for the initial cohort of students.

We decided to limit applicants to those displaced by the conflict in Syria and currently living in Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey. We reasoned that displaced Syrians living in those countries, in contrast to those in Europe, have almost no access to higher education and invariably have slim financial resources. We did not include current residents of Syria, even though many of them are internally displaced, because it is more difficult to assess their financial status, need, and access to higher education.

We also decided to include Syrians currently in the United States under Temporary Protected Status (TPS). The TPS designation covers approximately 5,000 Syrians who are essentially stranded in the country—having arrived here for educational, business, tourism, or other reasons—but finding it impossible to return home. TPS status allows individuals to study but does not provide access to educational funding.

To reach potential applicants, we partnered formally with the Institute for International Education (IIE), a nonprofit that advances access to education worldwide. IIE included Columbia’s scholarship program on its website under the Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis. We then distributed the IIE link to our informal network of partners in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, including the Columbia Global Centers in Amman and Istanbul.

In late November 2016, we launched the Columbia Scholarship Program for Displaced Persons and were swiftly overwhelmed with interest. The online networks of refugee communities proved incredibly efficient at spreading news of opportunities. For instance, the link was shared widely on the Facebook pages of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), the International Refugee Assistant Project (IRAP), UNICEF in Lebanon, and EducationUSA. The UNICEF post alone garnered 1,165 shares and 160 comments.

Columbia University’s admissions offices received many highly qualified applications—more than we had spots for, despite Columbia’s extremely high standards. Offers have been extended to an initial cohort of applicants; those who accept will matriculate at Columbia in September 2017. We will provide ongoing support through several on-campus student and administrative organizations.

Data collection from our initial applicant pool is ongoing. We received more than 200 inquiries after the scholarship details were posted; of those, 90 met the eligibility requirements (many students were not residing in our three target countries or were currently in Syria). Of that number, we received a total of 56 applicants—a significant portion of whom met application requirements, far beyond the six spots we had initially allocated for this pilot.

Our numbers are in line with other groups, such as Syrian Youth Empowerment (started by current and recent Syrian graduates of US universities), which saw around 300 inquiries once it posted an offer to help applicants with their essays and tests. Other NGOs, such as our partner United Youth for Lebanon, also have a similar batch of students, many of whom have already taken and scored incredibly well on the standardized tests required for entry into the most select US universities.

We now know that there exists a highly qualified population of refugees who would do well at many other US universities. Yet today, we are aware of only two similar programs at much smaller universities, Illinois Institute of Technology and Monmouth College, both of which have placed refugee graduates in jobs at big-name firms such as Goldman Sachs and Google. Although we are not experts on the refugee crisis, we are confident that what we have done can and hopefully will be replicated at America’s other 4,700 colleges.

Higher education of displaced students, not just from Syria but from many other nations, makes econonomic sense for those individuals with the academic potential to study at leading US universities. Furthermore, many of these individuals have the critical skills needed to lead peaceful rebuilding efforts of their nations once conflict ends. Unfortunately, US immigration policy is increasingly at odds with this reality. This is, to put it mildly, frustrating and disheartening. Given the course of the current US political climate, it has struck us how much more important it is that universities—whose stated mission is the advancement of knowledge—work to ensure that refugee students who have the potential to become great contributors to society, if not future Nobel laureates, have access to their vast resources.

This is why we continue to press forward, because the consequences if we do not are substantial. Just think about that young refugee Arno Penzias. We educators cannot turn our backs on this crisis and fail to help educate refugees whose discoveries can and will open up new worlds. For if we do, our universe will be infinitely smaller.

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