Community Colleges Need to Do More to Support Immigrant Students: Report

Nearly 80% of respondents to an Upwardly Global survey said their community college needs to do more work to better meet the needs of immigrant and refugee students.
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Published on September 29, 2023
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  • While immigrants make up a large part of the community college student population, a new report from Upwardly Global found that many community colleges need to do more to meet their needs.
  • Just 10% of community college administrators and practitioners who were surveyed as part of the report said their school is meeting demand to support re-credential and career reentry for immigrant students.
  • Schools should bolster data and career services for immigrant students in order to boost student success, according to the report.
  • Stackable, short-term credentials are also key to supporting immigrant students, according to the report.

Community colleges are critical access points to higher education for immigrant and refugee students. However, administrators say they need to do more to meet the specific needs of these students, according to a new study.

Upwardly Global, a national nonprofit that helps students with international credentials restart their careers in the United States, conducted focus groups with college administrators and surveyed community college practitioners throughout the U.S. It found that most respondents said their school needs to do more to support immigrant and refugee students.

Students who are immigrants face unique barriers at community colleges, according to the report.

"[O]ne of community colleges' greatest strengths — their accessibility — can also be a challenge, especially for immigrant-origin students who are often unfamiliar with them," the report reads.

"Community colleges are uniquely American, and immigrants may not know how to navigate the array of credit and noncredit courses and short-term certificates to improve their English language skills and prepare for better jobs, graduate schools, further certification, or professional licensure in the U.S."

Nearly a third of all community college students are of immigrant origin, according to Upwardly Global's report, but almost 80% of respondents to the nonprofit's national survey said their community college needs to boost their capacity to meet the needs of immigrant and refugee students.

Just 10% of community colleges that were surveyed are currently meeting demand to support re-credentialing to help immigrant students with career reentry. Nearly a third of community colleges surveyed don't have programs to help immigrant students with career reentry, according to the report.

Upwardly Global underscored the importance of supporting immigrant students in a press release, noting that those students can help fill key workforce shortages across the United States.

Upwardly Global President and CEO Jina Krause-Vilmar said in the release that the report "underscores the critical need to invest in the community college system, which acts as a vital and accessible pathway to workforce inclusion for immigrant communities, offering insights that dismantle barriers and unlock untapped potential."

Career Services, Data, and Credentials: How Community Colleges Can Support Students

Upwardly Global identified several areas where community colleges can focus to help immigrant and refugee students with re-credentialing and career reentry.

The report notes that community colleges have in recent years increased their focus on short-term, stackable credentials that students can earn independently or while working toward a degree — a move that can mean affordable credentials for students who might not be able to afford a full degree program.

Nondegree credentials are increasingly popular among both students and employers, and they have been shown to lead to better earnings.

Career services like career navigators are also critical, according to the report. San Jacinto College in Texas, for instance, offers "internationally trained professionals" classes to help students with advanced degrees from another country find and navigate employment in the United States.

That college also pairs internationally trained immigrants and refugees with case managers who help connect them to employers and other resources, according to the report.

Career and support coaches have been increasingly common on college campuses in recent years, with Illinois last year introducing benefits navigators on campuses to help students apply for federal, state, and local assistance and benefits programs.

Many community colleges send internationally educated immigrants to foreign credential evaluation services to determine how their experience and education should be evaluated by the school — but students often require more flexibility, according to the report.

"Their chosen profession may require a long relicensing process that's too costly and time-consuming to pursue, leaving some students with professional backgrounds to consider alternatives," the report reads.

"It is therefore important for advisors to understand students' career goals as well as the college's certificate programs related to alternative careers to provide tailored guidance to these students."

Career services need to differentiate between immigrant students and the general student population in order to better meet immigrant and refugee students' unique needs, according to the report.

Colleges also need to collect student data more holistically rather than siloing it in different departments, the report notes, in order to ensure that the college's services are meeting the needs of students.