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Can Online Education Help Refugees Earn Degrees?

When refugees want to enter higher education, they often lack the paperwork.

To enroll in conventional universities, students need to submit the kind of documentation — like passports and previous education records — that many refugees do not have. And even when refugees are able to provide the required documentation, tuition is often out of their price range.

But in the past few months, some online universities have been reaching out to those students, telling refugees that they don’t have to provide comprehensive records to enroll and offering free tuition.

The University of the People, an online degree program based in the United States, is one of those institutions. Founded in 2009, the university charges students a $100 examination fee for each course as well as a one-time application fee.

Last month the university announced that it would admit 500 Syrian refugees, including those without official transcripts and documentation. The refugees will be able to study either business administration or computer science, and those who cannot afford the examination and application fees may apply for scholarships.

“The 500 Syrian refugees are clearly going to benefit,” said Allan E. Goodman, president and chief executive of the Institute of International Education. “Any education that we can provide to this potentially entirely lost generation is going to make the world less dangerous and give them something they can use when the crisis is over.”

But even though large populations of refugees need access to higher education, he said, there’s a problem with using online education to close that gap: Many of the Syrian refugees want a degree that’s recognized by an Arab ministry of education.

“Because they’re refugees, they want to go back home at some point,” he said. “And they’re going to need a credential that’s recognized back home.”

The University of the People is accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, formerly known as the Distance Education and Training Council, in the United States, but what if those degrees aren’t recognized in a refugee’s home country? Or what if refugees earn a degree from a program that isn’t accredited at all, or they aren’t able to transfer their credits to a traditional university?

“Distance learning is difficult in the best of circumstances,” said Keith David Watenpaugh, director of human-rights studies and associate professor of human-rights studies at the University of California at Davis. “We have to be very cautious in its use against vulnerable populations like Syrian-refugee students.”

For a refugee with limited resources, it is difficult to know whether a particular online degree program is reputable — and whether the degree will be recognized at other institutions, and in other countries, Mr. Watenpaugh said.

Kiron University, based in Germany and scheduled to open this month, claims to offer refugees an internationally recognized degree. To apply, prospective students must submit a document confirming their refugee status. If they don’t have that, they can submit a document certifying that they have started the application process.

But while the courses Kiron plans to offer in the first two years are all MOOCs produced by top universities like Harvard, Kiron isn’t accredited. To earn a degree, Kiron’s would-be students must transfer to one of the university’s partner institutions at the beginning of their third year.

Kiron’s partner institutions are all recognized universities, which is how students can end up earning a recognized degree, according to the university’s website. And depending on how many spots the partner institutions offer Kiron students each year, third-year admissions might be more selective.

Mr. Watenpaugh is skeptical of online degree programs with those kinds of stipulations. And even if an unaccredited institution like Kiron claims to have partnerships with established universities, he said, “how does a university student at a camp in Jordan enforce that kind of relationship?”

Refugees who want an education are vulnerable to exploitation, he added. Rather than push those students into online degree programs of questionable value, he said, countries like the United States should work to accommodate refugee students. “I don’t buy the argument,” he said, “that doing something is better than doing nothing.”

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