|Photo: Kim Gittleson|
|Photo: Bruce Usher|
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.
Source: Stanford Social Innovation Review