Refugees and the International Higher Education Audit Culture in the United States

Refugees overcome high barriers to survive, resettle in the United States, and to thrive in their new communities. On account of the protracted nature of modern conflicts, refugees are now often displaced for a decade or more, while living in refugee camps or in urban settings, prior to being resettled to a country of ultimate destination by the United Nations (UNHCR, 2019). So, many refugees spend much of their youth and young adult lives in protracted displacement.  During this time, some of them are able to overcome considerable obstacles and further their  education, including college and graduate education and professional credential (Dryden-Peterson, 2012).

Upon resettlement to the United States, often refugees lack or cannot obtain the needed “official copies” of their credentialing documents (transcripts, diplomas, syllabi, letters of recommendation, etc.).  In addition, highly skilled and professionally qualified refugees with the necessary credentials, face difficulties passing the vetting process designed for international students, inhibiting them to continue their education or career.

This blog describes preliminary research findings on how the bureaucratic culture and practices—or “audit culture” (Strathern, 2003; Shore & Wright,1999)—of the internationalization of higher education in the United States is a major and unnecessary barrier to the access to higher education for refugees, which frustrates the process of integrating refugees into the professional workforce and the flourishing of the refugee community as a whole. This problem is particularly concerning because studies agree that the underemployment of college-educated immigrants is a major problem in the United States (Batalova & Bachmeier, 2016; Fogg & Harrinington, 2012; Rabben, 2013). This situation violates the spirit and the letter of the United States’ obligations under Article 19 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which obligates signatories to respect refugees’ right to practice liberal professions, by adopting systems that are favorable to the recognition of their education and professional credentials (Campbell, 2018).

In this blog, we briefly describe this audit culture and provide three brief life histories of refugees who are resettled in Wisconsin—illustrating how the bureaucratic culture and procedures of international higher education operate as barriers to the success of refugees in their new communities.

The audit culture of the internationalization of higher education

National data indicates that the 1.1 million international students in the United States contributed $39 billion and supported 455,000 jobs in the US economy during the 2017-18 academic year (National Association of Foreign Student Advisers, 2019). The bureaucratic procedures put in place to review the academic credentials of international students are designed to manage this large and prosperous economy of higher education—they unfortunately also serve as a major barrier to higher education for refugees resettled to the United States.

Universities in the United States require “official copies” of transcripts and other educational documents in applications for admission. Often, refugees lack the needed official documentation to support such applications. Furthermore, on occasion, colleges in the country of origin may be destroyed or not recognized by the local government’s higher education accrediting agency. Refugee resettlement providers refer such cases to private credentialing specialists, who review the available documentation and produce a report that identifies credentials and credits that may be recognized by enrollment officers as equivalent. In some cases, credentialing specialists work with refugees and their former international educational institutions to attempt to obtain missing documentation. Often, however, this is impossible. In such cases, they can employ what one credentialing specialist described as “a narrative approach.” This involves describing the educational background of the refugee as best as possible, to try to fill in the gaps left by missing or unofficial documents, to narrate a more holistic picture of the refugee’s education. Ultimately, the decision to recognize a refugee’s credentials and course equivalences is in the hands of the enrollment officers of the particular institution, who may often not recognize the courses as equivalent or rule the application as “incomplete” because of the unofficial status of the transcripts. Some institutions such as public technical colleges have a track-record of employing inclusive admissions policies and procedures that will aid refugees—and some advisors make an extra effort to help refugees navigate the bureaucratic audit culture—but the majority do not. Given this situation, the US Office of Refugee Resettlement advises refugees to “manage expectations” through this process of re-credentialing (2012), which is unfortunately of little help to many educated refugees.

Case study 1: Mohammed, an entrepreneur from Somalia to Madison

Mohammed, born in Mogadishu, Somalia, is a refugee whose family left their home to escape the civil war. After spending over 13 years in one of the world’s largest refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya, where Mohammed finished high school, Mohammed’s family decided it was best to send him to the United States, where he would continue his education and support his family. After resettling to Wisconsin, Mohammed was able to learn English with the support of his teachers at Madison College. Mohammed only had a copy of a certificate that he obtained after completing high school at the refugee camp; this verified his high school completion but did not confirm any  of his classes. When applying to a public university in Wisconsin, the admissions office denied the transcript, as it had to be sent directly from the original school. Mohammed attempted to contact his high school in Kenya, but he was unsuccessful. The cost of sending the transcript would have been around $400. After speaking to an advisor at the technical college, Mohammed discovered that he could obtain a High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED), which would function like a US high school GED. In order to do this, he would have to prove his proficiency in math and English, along with passing a civics test. Within a few weeks, Mohammed obtained his HSED and was able to successfully apply to college. Though Mohammed was able to navigate the college application process and overcome the obstacles he encountered, many refugees are not as fortunate. Though Mohammed was able to navigate the obstacles that held him back from going to college, many refugees are not as fortunate. Young adult refugees are not only under pressure to financially support themselves, but to provide for their families in the US and overseas. This increases the pressure to accept easy-access low-paying jobs, instead of confronting the risks and obstacles of pursuing higher education and advanced careers.

Case study 2: Francis, a social worker from the Congo (DNC) to the Fox Valley

Francis fled the Democratic Republic of Congo with his family to a United Nations’ refugee camp in Uganda during the Second Congo War (1998-2003). Later, he moved to Uganda’s capital city of Kampala and ultimately resettled in Wisconsin. Francis is fluent in English and obtained a bachelor’s in social work from Makerere University, Uganda. This degree included several required internships, which Francis completed with the international aid organization Hebrew Immigrant Aid Services (HIAS). His goal is to earn a master’s degree in social work in the United States and support the refugee community as a professional social worker. Francis worked with a credentialing advisor on his application to a public university in Wisconsin, but slight differences between the Ugandan and US crediting systems proved to be a major challenge. Eventually, with support from his former professors in Uganda and after months of intensive communication with university advisors in Wisconsin, including several application fees, Francis was able to obtain the necessary documents and was accepted to the social work bachelor’s program. ”I already have a college degree, why would I do that again! I was applying to the master’s program!” Not wanting to repeat his college degree, Francis is continuing to appeal for his degree to be recognized, so he can continue his studies and eventually practice his profession in his new community in Wisconsin.

Case study 3: Dunya, a pharmacist from Iraq to Madison

Dunya and her family were internally displaced in her home country Iraq for 15 years, due to the destabilization caused by the US invasion and later, the rise of ISIS. Her father was an engineering professor in Iraq, so when the situation in Iraq became too dangerous, he applied for temporary year-to-year contracts with universities in other countries. First, the family moved to Malaysia where Dunya completed high school and learned English. They then moved to Oman where she earned a degree in pharmacy, completed a required internship and started working as a licensed pharmacist. The situation in Iraq did not improve and Dunya and her father’s year-to-year contracts could be terminated without notice. So, they applied to the United Nations as refugees, and were eventually resettled to Wisconsin.  Dunya has been struggling for over a year for her credentials to be recognized. Programs in the US and in Oman are both six years, except that in Oman the first semester is uncredited. This detail has prevented Dunya from continuing her training and becoming a licensed pharmacist in the US. If her degree were recognized, she could complete the required internship under a licensed pharmacist in Wisconsin. Here, she would also learn pharmaceutical procedures that are specific to the United States, and later take the pharmacy licensing examination necessary to practice her profession. But, given her difficult situation, Dunya has started to lose hope.

Moving Froward: A call to transform the audit culture for higher education for refugees

The audit culture of international higher education is designed to manage the education economy of large numbers of international students. It is not designed to support the access of refugees to higher education. The evidence from our case studies strongly suggests that this audit culture operates as a barrier for refugees to access education and practice their professions. We argue that refugees (and others with refugee background such as Adjudicated Asylees) should be given special consideration by postsecondary education institutions and  professional associations in the United States.

The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers has drafted a policy paper on “Inclusive Admissions Policies for Displaced and Vulnerable Students” (Streitwieser, 2019), which identifies many practical strategies that admissions staff can employ to provide a rigorous review of the credentials of refugee students, while at the same time giving special consideration to the struggles that refugees face to satisfy the audit culture of international higher education in the United States. We call on universities in the United States to remove the unnecessary barriers to higher education and professional work for refugees by adopting these practices.

Dr. Matthew Wolfgram is an anthropologist of education and senior researchers at CCWT; Melina Quiles is a PEOPLE Program Scholar, CCWT Summer Intern, and senior at Rufus King High School in Milwaukee Wisconsin; Joseph Yang a PEOPLE Program Scholar, CCWT Summer Intern, and senior at Madison East High School in Madison Wisconsin. The CCWT is supported by the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and the School of Education at UW-Madison.


Works cited

Streitwieser, B. T. (2019). Inclusive admissions policies for displaced and vulnerable students. American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. Retrieved from:

Batalova, J., Fix, M., & Bachmeier, J. D. (2016). Untapped Talent: The Costs of Brain Waste among Highly Skilled Immigrants in the United States. World Education Services.

Campbell, S. C. (2018). What’s a Sundial in the Shade: Brain Waste among Refugee Professionals Who Are Denied Meaningful Opportunity for Credential Recognition. Emory LJ, 68, 139.

Dryden-Peterson, S. (2012). The politics of higher education for refugees in a global movement for primary education. Refuge: Canada’s Journal on Refugees, 27(2), 10-18.

Fogg. N., & Harrington., P. (2012). Mal-employment problems among college-educated immigrants in the United States. Retrieved from:

National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (2019). International student economic value tool. National Association of Foreign Student Advisers. Retrieved from:

Office of Refugee Resettlement (2012). Recertification/Re-credentialing of refugee professionals. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from:

Rabben, L. (2013). Credential recognition in the United States for foreign professionals. Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved from:

Shore, C., & Wright, S. (1999). Audit culture and anthropology: neo-liberalism in British higher education. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 5(4), 557-557.

Strathern, M. (2003). Audit cultures: Anthropological studies in accountability, ethics and the academy. Routledge.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2019). Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018. United Nations. Retrieved from: