Shadley: The United States Disregards Foreign Education


Xiangyao Tang

National flags in the A. Ray Olpin Union building on campus at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Oct. 28, 2021. (Photo by Xiangyao “Axe” Tang | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Will Shadley, Opinion Writer


With 40 million people born in a different country, the United States has more immigrants than anywhere else in the world. And two million of those people who earned degrees from foreign universities either can’t find work or work “low-skill” jobs. People immigrate to other countries with the hopes of improving their livelihood — sometimes by choice, sometimes out of necessity. Yet, here in the U.S., immigrants are often forced to find employment unrelated to their profession. Years of educational attainment and career experience end up discarded all because we’ve failed to devise an adequate system for certifying non-Western degrees.

When immigrants in the U.S. have to start over in a new career, they receive far less compensation than in a field where their experience would apply. That harms their personal success. Simultaneously, funneling talented, educated individuals into a new profession unrelated to their skillset minimizes their chance to improve society. While their worth should not be contingent on their “contribution to society,” stripping them of their ability to do so remains negligent. The U.S. should respect foreign education enough to afford all its immigrants the autonomy over their employment that they deserve.

Education Recertification

The U.S. does not offer college-educated immigrants good pathways towards recertifying their degrees. The U.S. Department of Education does not evaluate foreign degrees. With the federal government’s failure to assume the task of recertification, that job falls on individual companies and organizations.

One agency that relies on immigrant employees, the U.S. Department of State, provides a template for what the certification process might look like. They direct applicants to two certification organizations, the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services (NACES) and the Association of International Credentials Evaluators (AICE). Immigrants must have that certification before they can even apply for a job with the Department of State.

NACES doesn’t provide the evaluation services themselves. Instead, they evaluate different private evaluation agencies that they deem credible. Then, people pay hundreds of dollars, depending on the agency and depth of certification, to those agencies to evaluate the quality of their degrees. Finally, they can apply to an agency that likely still doesn’t fully understand their qualifications.

If you skimmed the previous section and jumped here, that’s part of the issue. Immigrants must navigate an inane bureaucratic maze with significant fees to simply apply to a single job in their field. Other jobs may or may not accept the same certifications, or they may not accept certifications at all. After a few rejections and hundreds or thousands of dollars, it’s no surprise that doctors, lawyers and engineers resign themselves to careers in custodial work, dishwashing or retail.

Employment Autonomy

So-called “low-skill” jobs don’t exist, despite attempts to characterize these sorts of jobs as such. Dishwashing, custodial work or customer service jobs all require different skill sets and dispositions that not everyone has. And the pandemic has taught us how society would crumble without the millions of essential workers who work these jobs every day. Still, we undervalue and grossly underpay the workers who fill that vital role. Everyone, college-educated immigrant or not, should receive far higher compensation for “low-skill” jobs. Yet, the main problem with college-educated workers performing these jobs comes not from the work itself, but from the lack of autonomy it provides them in their careers.

Everyone has the right to elect to work in a field that they want to work in. When people spend years or decades obtaining the degrees, certifications and experience necessary to perform skilled work, blocking them from doing so should never be unacceptable. For 40 million foreign-born Americans, that’s an additional obstruction to navigating our already-tenuous economic situation. This can only be solved by the federal government establishing a universal, free system of educational recertification for any foreign degree.

Time for Change

With the prospect of another world war and climate migration ramping up, we can expect more and more refugees to come to the U.S., and without an adequate federal recertification system in place, they likely won’t attain jobs in careers that match their non-Western qualifications. And just as importantly, recognizing that there are other ways to receive a quality education than from a U.S. (or European/Australian) institution will show that a foreign education cannot be considered inferior. Failure to do so reinforces the problematic notion that somehow Western forms of knowledge generation and accumulation are the only valid form of education.


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