Developing a global model for high-quality, accredited, competency-based, and flexible higher education for youth affected by displacement



SNHU Global University is a comprehensive, context-sensitive, and scalable solution to bring high-quality, low-cost tertiary education to refugees worldwide. Our program offers refugee youth and others affected by displacement - including youth from marginalized refugee-hosting communities - the opportunity to pursue online competency-based BA and AA degrees through our innovative College for America platform. With US-accredited degrees, graduates will have the knowledge, critical thinking skills and credentials to pursue meaningful employment and to transform their futures.

The ongoing refugee crisis is a dramatic acceleration of a decades-long trend. The average duration for protracted displacement is now 26 years, leaving entire generations without higher education or employment opportunities. Education is the most overlooked “durable solution” to the global refugee crisis. By providing high-quality tertiary education, we are recognizing the agency, creativity, and capabilities of refugee youth and their potential to contribute to political, social, and economic solutions for themselves. Our pilot program in Rwanda proves that this model can work even for youth with significant academic gaps, language challenges, and social disadvantages.

Our approach is made both feasible and sustainable through our flexible, low-cost degree and versatile partnership model. Unique even in the US context, our innovative competency-based degree enables learners to proceed at their own pace, while US-accreditation offers internationally-recognized credentials, leaving students with the mobility needed to contend with future uncertainties. The flexibility of our model means it can be adapted to any context, including protracted camps, urban contexts, emergency environments, and resettlement programs - enabling it to reach displaced youth worldwide. By documenting evidence from our program, we hope that others can also use this model to bring higher education to youth around the globe.

What are the key outcomes and impact of your solution?

Our model intends to effectively deliver a high-quality context-sensitive education to displaced youth. For this demographic, tertiary education holds the key to an alternative future of opportunity. The precarious nature of emerging refugee crises worldwide – as well as the increasing prevalence of urban refugees and global trends toward rising mobility – means that education solutions must be as mobile and adaptable as the populations that they serve.

At the level of the individual learner, we will collect data on key performance indicators (KPIs), tracking student performance and progress both during enrollment and after graduation.

Evaluations will focus on the identified key performance indicators for both program outputs and outcomes:

KPIs for outputs:

  • Enrollment rates, completion/attrition rates, length of time to degree completion, academic performance and progress
  • Equity of access to higher education (gender equity in enrollment ratios and performance, access of marginalized groups)
  • Increased capacity for implementing partner organizations through resource sharing and support


KPIs for outcomes:

  • Post-graduation employment rates (tracked continuously over time)
  • Post-graduate income levels (tracked continuously over time)
  • Community-level impacts (impacts on primary/secondary school capacity and performance, wider community economic impacts, student/graduate work/contributions to community)
  • Integration of refugees with local host communities


Additionally, as part of our overall monitoring and evaluation plan, we will focus on building capacity around internal evaluation for our local partners and national staff by offering training and resources for M&E. We also will create  opportunities for students and community members to participate in evaluations of our programs through participatory research assessments and by training graduates to assist with broader monitoring and evaluation efforts, such as building systems for tracking alumni networks and employment outcomes post-graduation.

We are committed to building a robust and publicly-accessible evidence base to share our model with other organizations and universities for scale at a global level. In our pilot program in Rwanda an independent evaluation found that CfA students in Rwanda are outperforming students in other higher education institutions in Rwanda at a statistically significant level. Early evidence also reveals that CfA graduates have overwhelmingly high post-graduation employment rates, with 93% of students receiving full-time offers by graduation. We have made significant advances in gender equity; both on our Kigali and Kiziba refugee camp campuses, gender rations for student enrollment are 50:50. After receiving the Humanitarian Education Accelerator award, a research grant led by UNHCR, UNICEF and DFID, we have the resources to continue with our ambitious plans to build our evidence base, determining best practices and successful strategies for global scale.

What actions do you propose to realize your stated goals?

SNHU’s unique proposal for a global model of refugee higher education combines an online competency-based degree platform with on-the-ground coaching and course facilitation to give displaced youth the flexibility and support that they need to complete their education amidst the recurring challenges that they face in their daily lives. The fundamental technology underlying our model is SNHU’s College for America (CfA) platform, a US-accredited online education program that awards degrees based on the competencies that students acquire rather than the mere hours that they commit to their studies.

Alongside our innovation online learning technology, our novel blended-learning model is essential to delivering CfA to communities affected by displacement, whose learners are often held back by educational deficits. In our pilot program, we have kept costs low by training and employing national staff to serve as course facilitators and coaches, who adapt our US curriculum and provide language and academic support that students in these contexts require to complete the CfA curriculum. We also utilise local networks to give each student access to professional internships following course completion.

In order to scale our successful pilot program and deliver this model at a global scale, we will build on existing work and resources by working with partner organisations already on the ground to develop satellite learning centres that deliver a variety of connected learning courses, certificates and degrees, with a U.S.-accredited BA degree through CfA as the capstone of the higher education pathway guide.

In the initial prototyping phase, our team will begin working with on-the-ground implementing partners to deliver higher education to refugee youth in two additional country sites, Kenya and Turkey, while also continuing our work on our existing pilot program in Rwanda. Working with identified partners, we will establish pilot models in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya and in Reyhanli district in Turkey, which is along the border with Syria. We chose these sites both because of the high numbers of vulnerable refugee and host community youth who are unable to access opportunities for higher education and employment, in addition to the presence of identified partners who are committed to working with SNHU to deliver high-quality degrees for students. These pilots will offer significant insights for refining and adapting our existing model in different social and language contexts. 

In the implementing phase, we will use learning and evidence from our pilot and prototyping phases in order to expand our model to 10 sites in 6 countries

Opportunities & Strengths

We have identified a number of important advantages that will enable us to successfully build and scale our model, including:

Uniqueness of SNHU degree model: Other organisations and universities are also doing important work on tertiary education for displaced populations; however to-date we are the only program able to provide bachelor's degrees to students, thanks to our unique, low-cost ($3,000/year) competency-based degree, an initial innovation allows us to expand opportunities for higher education globally. We are also the only competency-based model working in this field; those offering accredited programs follow a traditional credit model system, which requires students to register a certain number of hours within a set time period. Our flexible competency-based degree is more suited to the uncertainty of refugees’ lives and mobility; by measuring progress and giving credit based on competence demonstrated through assessed projects, students are able to complete the degree at their pace and to take breaks without penalty.

Partnership model: Our partnership model is the foundation of our program delivery and expansion strategy. Southern New Hampshire University and our Rwanda-based partner Kepler both belong to the Connected Learning Consortium, a UNHCR-led collaboration of organisations and universities committed to working together to build evidence and learning around tertiary education programs for refugees. Building on our expertise and partnership model with our Rwandan-based partner, Kepler, organisational partners will be responsible for providing robust academic and operational support to students, as well as psychosocial and employment services. Our partnership model will differ from site-to-site depending on the existing partners there. Working with these partners and other existing organisations, we will support them through resource-sharing and capacity-building to deliver SHNU’s AA & BA degrees, in addition to the tertiary education programs they are already offering. We will work with partners to develop comprehensive bridging and English language learning programs to support students to prepare for the SNHU degree program. By partnering with on-the-ground organisations, we can exploit synergies and draw upon the collective expertise of many organisations working on ground to implement connected learning tertiary education programs.

Employment pathways: We have a track record of working with partners to develop contextualised strategies to find internship and employment opportunities for our graduates, based on workforce and employment needs (including opportunities for remote digital employment), and will adapt our curriculum and partner programs to those needs through new concentrations, degrees, and certifications.

Resettlement: Our U.S.-based program is available to resettled refugees as well as refugees that have been resettled to the US who were students at our global sites. This enables important flexibility and mobility for our refugee learners, whose studies are often interrupted by frequent movement and resettlement.

Risks and Challenges

We have also considered the principal risks or threats to the short- and long-term success of our solution as well our plans to address them. These include:

Infrastructure: Lack of internet connectivity, energy, and appropriate learning facilities could jeopardize program success and timeline. We have a track-record of program delivery in difficult contexts.

Academic & language barriers: The language of delivery is English for CfA degree program, although will also be working with partners to develop language skills support courses and Arabic and Spanish language support curricula. Many students in refugee and other marginalised contexts have suffered from poor quality primary and secondary school education, which can create significant academic skill gaps that need to be overcome before they can be successful at a tertiary level. We expect significant language and learning barriers but will draw upon our expertise and track record of specializing in developing preparatory programs focusing on language and academic skills.

Displacement: Students in displaced contexts will face many uncertainties in their daily lives, and have a higher likelihood of moving or changing locations throughout the duration of the program. While our CfA degree program is designed for maximum flexibility and mobility, and will guarantee students access to the platform from anywhere for the duration of their degree (including cases of resettlement), this will create additional challenges to supporting refugee learners. In addition, we expect that the uncertainty of their current lives and existing trauma from past events will impact the psychosocial health of our students in a way that will have knock-on impacts for learning. We work closely with on-the-ground partners to provide localized and culturally appropriate academic and pyschosocial support to overcome these challenges.

Security: Programs will be operating in contexts of significant insecurity, which creates risks for both students and staff, and additional challenges for supporting student learning. We will draw on evidence and learning from our partners working on the ground in places such as Dadaab refugee camp and Aleppo, Syria in order to better understand these risks and operational solutions, as well as our track record of delivery in difficult environments, including our existing solutions which include a safety walkers program for students.

Political pushback/barriers: It is possible that we could encounter significant political resistance or animosity toward our programming in the countries in which we work. In particular, we expect that some host governments may resist the idea of educating refugee learners when their own populations also are in need of higher education opportunities. We will actively build buy-in from policymakers in all countries of operation. We are sensitive to concerns about exclusively targeting refugee learners, when hosting populations are also under-served; so guarantee that host members will comprise 25-50% of total program intake.

Barriers to Employment: Barriers that prevent refugees from being able to legally work in their host countries will present a major challenge for our commitment to providing employment pathways for our students. In addition, limited employment opportunities and widespread discrimination against refugees in many our project site countries will create challenges in identifying and securing employment for student graduates, even in cases where right to work is granted. High unemployment rates, discrimination and right-to-work issues might challenge creation of employment pathways for graduates. Beyond engaging with local employer networks, we will explore solutions to create digital employment opportunities.  

Who will take these actions?

SNHU's team pioneers online, competency-based education as a cost-effective method of extending high-quality degrees to non-traditional students. To do this, we employ coaches as “academic sherpas”, providing wraparound on-the-ground academic and social support. The emergence of the refugee crisis prompted our exploration of applying this solution internationally. In 2013, the team realized the program's transformative potential with its Rwanda campus. In 2015, SNHU sealed its commitment to refugees by partnering with governments, NGOs, and UNHCR to open the planet's only U.S.-accredited Bachelor's no-cost-to-students degree program in Kiziba refugee camp in Rwanda.

SNHU’s VP for Global Engagement is ideally positioned within the Office of the President to serve as project manager for refugee educational programming. This includes the management of financials, governance, strategic plans, and convening meetings between key partners. The VP of Global Engagement works directly with the President of SNHU, who will provide guidance and support to the VP as needed. Our Director of Refugee Education Programs will work with both the CfA and broader SNHU team and the partners of each project site to oversee successful implementation of the model.

Our partnership with UNHCR will remain key for the success of this project. UNHCR assists with camp access and provides logistical support through existing partners and infrastructure. As is currently SNHU’s practice, we will collaborate with UNHCR to establish agreements with site-specific partners and ensure successful expansion. UNHCR and SNHU’s partnership is ideally situated to solve the problem of access to tertiary education for refugees. The organizations have collaborated together with on-the-ground partners in camps since 2015 to offer the planet’s only fully accredited U.S. Bachelor’s degree at no cost to refugees.

In the partnership, SNHU fully controls financials, governance, on-the-ground partnerships, and degree administration. UNHCR acts as a liaison to partners, a connector to new sites, data provision, and camp access. SNHU’s VP of Global Engagement collaborates directly with the Senior Education Director at UNHCR’s headquarters, UNCHR’s Learn Lab Manager at the innovation department, and with country headquarters and field offices at camps to ensure coordination in the provision of refugee tertiary education.

Our on-the-ground partners, including international and local NGOs, remain the cornerstone of our refugee higher education model, providing the local knowledge and resources needed to help displaced youth excel in their degrees. Our solution also requires the active participation and buy-in of host governments, who facilitate our operations and grant access to program sites. We also engage the private sector and local business communities in our site contexts by pursuing internship and employment opportunities for our graduates.

Target geography

The ongoing refugee crisis – with 65.3 million displaced worldwide – is a dramatic acceleration of a decades-long trend, leaving entire generations without higher education or employment opportunities. 6.7 million refugees remain confined to camps and informal settlements; others try to survive under the radar in cities, and an increasing proportion are risking their lives on dangerous migration routes, pursuing safety and jobs in high-income countries. Despite demands from experts, advocates, and refugees themselves, higher education remains out of reach for most; fewer than 1% of displaced people have access to higher education, compared to the global average of 34%. Ultimately, it is our hope that the SNHU Global University model can be available to vulnerable refugee and displaced youth all over the world who are in need of higher education opportunities to improve their lives and futures. However, in the initial prototyping and implementation phases, we intend to focus on two key regions for expansion, East Africa and the Middle East.

East African countries will remain an important focus as we seek to scale our model globally. Our existing pilot program in Rwanda offers important learning and insights for building similar programs and models in other countries including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.

In addition, we intend to expand our existing programs to refugee youth in the Middle East, including Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Over 11 million displaced Syrians - a majority of whom are children and youth - are facing uncertain futures and the risk of becoming a “lost” generation. Without education and credentials for skilled employment,  disenfranchised youth are vulnerable to radicalization and recruitment, and also remain ill-prepared for leadership roles which could transform their communities’ futures. By building and strengthening our initial partnerships with UN agencies, NGOs, and governments in this region, we intend to adapt our model and build evidence that will enable the successful scale up of our model for Syrian refugee youth and vulnerable host country youth across the Middle East.

In the implementing phase, we will use learning and evidence from our pilot programs to inform the expansion of our model to 10 sites in 6 countries for refugee and host country youth, including:

  1. Rwanda: Kiziba refugee camp and Mahama refugee camp
  2. Kenya: Kakuma refugee camp and Nairobi (urban refugees)
  3. Turkey: Reyhanli district and Istanbul (urban refugees)
  4. Jordan: Za'atari refugee camp and Amman (urban refugees)
  5. Lebanon: Beirut (urban refugees)
  6. Uganda: Nakivale refugee settlement

What do you expect are the costs associated with piloting and implementing the solution, and what is your business model?

SNHU Global University is purposefully designed to address the world's refugee crises by tackling a slice of the problem--access to tertiary education--and unlocking the potential of organizations already operating in camps by developing a collaborative model where SNHU both directly serves students and simultaneously creates a replicable model for adaptation and scale. Our partnership strategy brings together the currently fractured services for refugee tertiary education into a cohesive, synergistic model that provides our U.S. accredited, competency-based Bachelor's degree, at no cost to students. In order to leverage existing resources and expertise, we will draw upon our existing relationships with on-the-ground organizations. These partners will provide learning pathways and connected learning services for students enrolled in our programs.

To accomplish this, our budget is initially devoted to capacity-building and service-provision through our partners in the areas of: 1) academic support and ESL bridge programming, 2) ICT facilities, 3) student services, and 4) employment pathways.

Budgetary support for partners will be available to support equipment, contracted services, materials, and supply costs with the goal of building site capacity. This financial model means that in the long-term partners will not be reliant on external funding. Conversely, direct costs for tuition and program fees increase over the course of the grant as the number of students receiving services increases.


March-May 2017: Development of work plans and finalising partnership agreements in two additional pilot sites (Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya and Reyhanli district in Turkey). 

May-Sept 2017: Admissions process, team on-boarding and development of on-site learning centers with partners. Launch of M&E programming to gather baseline data and develop M&E frameworks.

Sept 2017: Matriculation of first student cohorts in two new sites (also matriculation for third cohort in Rwanda pilot site) Note: Other tertiary courses, certificates and language programs through partners will be offered on-site throughout year, to prepare future cohorts of youth for degree program.

Sept 2017-June 2018: Continued implementation of pilot programs in Rwanda, Kenya, and Turkey. Evidence and data will inform development of additional

January-April 2018: Identifying and establishing additional partnerships and work plans in additional project sites, including additional sites in Rwanda, Kenya and Turkey as well as sites in Jordan, Lebanon, and Uganda

May-Sept 2018: Launch of additional program sites and partnerships

Sept 2018-Sept 2021: Continuation of degree program at partner sites and continued expansion and scaling of SNHU Global University model to additional sites

Oct 2021: Global conference for knowledge exchange and feedback for higher education models for refugee youth, in order to encourage other universities and NGOs to pioneer similar models and programs

Expected graduation timelines:

June 2017-Dec 2017: First SNHU cohort graduates expected for AA degree* at Rwanda site

Sept 2018-Sept 2019: First SNHU cohort graduates expected for AA degree* at Kenya and Turkey sites

Aug-Dec 2019: First SNHU cohort graduates expected for BA degree* at Rwanda site

Sept 2020-Sept 2021: First SNHU cohort graduates expected for BA degree* at Kenya and Turkey sites

*Reflects average expected length of time to graduation. Competency-based degree allows students to complete degrees at own pace at any time.

Related solutions

These proposed solutions in the Solve CoLab have impressed and inspired us with their focus and dedication to either improving competency-based education for refugees or expanding access to higher education opportunities for displaced youth:

AVA - A virtual Adaptive Educational Hypermedia Network,The school of the future

The Society of Refugees in search of Education and quality teaching.

Culturally & Contextually Adaptive Online Education Support for Young Refugees

Social Innovation Center, Science & Engineering Education Lab in Refugee Camps

Re:Coded - training the brightest refugees to be world-class software developers


Humanitarian Education Accelerator.

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Dankova, P., & Giner, C. (2011) "Technology in aid of learning for isolated refugees." Forced Migration Review 38:11-12.

Dryden-Peterson, S., & Giles, W. (2010). Introduction: Higher education for refugees. Refuge: Canada's Journal on Refugees 27(2), 3–9.

Gladwell, C., Hollow, D., Robinson, A., Norman, B., Bowerman, E., Mitchell, J., Floremont, F., & Hutchinson, P. (2016a). Higher education for refugees in low-resource environments: research study. Jigsaw Consult, United Kingdom.

Gladwell, C., Hollow, D., Robinson, A., Norman, B., Bowerman, E., Mitchell, J., Floremont, F., & Hutchinson, P. (2016b). Higher education for refugees in low-resource environments: landscape review. Jigsaw Consult, United Kingdom.

MacLaren, Duncan. (2012) "Tertiary Education for Refugees: A Case Study from the Thai-Burma Border." Refuge: Canada's Journal on Refugees 27(2):103-110.

Mitschke, D. B., Aguirre, R. T., & Sharma, B. (2013). Common threads: improving the mental health of Bhutanese refugee women through shared learning. Social Work in Mental Health, 11(3), 249-266.

Moser-Mercer, B. (2014). MOOCs in fragile contexts. In U. Cress and C. Delgado Kloos (eds.). Proceedings of the European MOOC Stakeholder Summit 2014, EPFL, Lausanne (pp. 114-121). European Commission: eLearning Papers/Open Education Europa (

Moser-Mercer, B., Speakman, S., & Emerimana, D.C. (2017). Higher education in emergencies: digital learning in humanitarian settings. Geneva: InZone (unpubl. manuscript).

Taylor, S., & Sidhu, R.K. (2012). Supporting refugee students in schools: what constitutes inclusive education? International Journal of Inclusive Education 16(1): 39-56.

Wright, L-A., & Plasterer, R. (2012). Beyond basic education: Exploring opportunities for higher learning in Kenyan refugee camps. Refuge: Canada's Journal on Refugees 27(2):42-56

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Solution Summary
SNHU Global University: A competency-based model for refugee higher education
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By:  NinaSNHU
Challenge: Learn: Refugee Education
How can we improve learning outcomes for refugee and displaced young people under 24?