Shelly Culbertson

Shelly Culbertson
Director, Infrastructure, Immigration, & Security Operations Program, RAND Homeland Security Research Division; Senior Policy Researcher; Professor of Policy Analysis, Pardee RAND Graduate School


M.P.A. in public policy and international development, Princeton University School for Public and International Affairs; B.Phil. in political science and philosophy, University of Pittsburgh; B.S. in mathematics, University of Pittsburgh

Media Resources

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Shelly Culbertson is a senior policy researcher, a professor of policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, and the director of the Infrastructure, Immigration, & Security Operations Program (IISO), part of the RAND Homeland Security Research Division. IISO supports eight organizations inside the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with strategic analysis on infrastructure security and resilience, immigration policy and enforcement, and law enforcement and security issues.

Culbertson's research focuses on immigration policy, mass migration, refugees, disaster recovery, post-conflict recovery, and international development. She has led multiple studies about mass migration, with particular focus on education, jobs, security, return conditions, and technology. She led a disaster recovery implementation plan for the U.S. Virgin Islands, sponsored by FEMA, a study on municipal recovery capacities needed for recovery in Puerto Rico, and a study on post-conflict stabilization of Mosul, Iraq after the operations against ISIS. Her international development work has focused on education policy in the Middle East. She coled a multi-year effort to advise the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq on improving education and coordinated RAND's project to design programs for the Qatar National Research Fund, which has now awarded over a billion dollars in research grants.

Prior to RAND, Culbertson worked at the U.S. State Department on Turkey and at LMI Government Consulting. Her commentaries have appeared in Foreign Policy, The National Interest, The Hill, Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, and other news outlets, and she has conducted media interviews on MSNBC, NPR, BBC World, and elsewhere. Culbertson is the author of The Fires of Spring: A Post Arab Spring Journey Through the Turbulent New Middle East (St. Martin's Press). She earned her M.P.A. in public policy and international development from the School for Public and International Affairs, Princeton University.

Selected Publications

Culbertson, Shelly, Julia H. Kaufman, Jenna W. Kramer, and Brian Phillips, Educating Newcomers: K–12 Public Schooling for Undocumented and Asylum-Seeking Children in the United States, RAND Corporation (RR-A1326-1), 2021

Culbertson, Shelly, Blas Nunez-Neto, Joie D. Acosta, Cynthia R. Cook, Andrew Lauland, Kristin J. Leuschner, Shanthi Nataraj, Benjamin Lee Preston, Susan A. Resetar, Adam C. Resnick, Patrick S. Roberts, and Howard J. Shatz, Recovery in the U.S. Virgin Islands: Progress, Challenges, and Options for the Future, RAND Corporation (RR-A282-1), 2020

Shelly Culbertson, The Fires of Spring: A Post-Arab Spring Journey Through the Turbulent New Middle East, St. Martin's Press, 2016

Shelly Culbertson and Linda Robinson, Making Victory Count after Defeating ISIS: Stabilization Challenges in Mosul and Beyond, The RAND Corporation (RR-2076), 2017

Shelly Culbertson, John Bordeaux, Italo Gutierrez, Andrew Lauland, Kristin Leuschner, Blas Nunez-Neto, Lisa Saum-Manning, Building Back Locally: Supporting Puerto Rico's Municipalities in Post-Hurricane Reconstruction, The RAND Corporation (RR-3041), 2020

Constant, Louay, Shelly Culbertson, Jonathan S. Blake, Mary Kate Adgie, and Hardika Dayalani, In Search of a Durable Solution: Examining the Factors Influencing Postconflict Refugee Returns, RAND Corporation (RR-A1327-1), 2021

Krishna B. Kumar, Shelly Culbertson, Louay Constant, Shanthi Nataraj, Fatih Unlu, Kathryn E. Bouskill, Joy S. Moini, Katherine Costello, Gursel Rafig oglu Aliyev, Fadia Afashe, Opportunities for All: Mutually Beneficial Opportunities for Syrians and Host Countries in Middle Eastern Labor Markets, The RAND Corporation (RR-2653), 2018

Shelly Culbertson, James Dimaragonas, Katherine Costello, Serafina Lanna, Crossing the Digital Divide: Applying Technology to the Global Refugee Crisis, The RAND Corporation (RR-4322), 2018

Recent Media Appearances

Interviews: 51 Percent Online - WAMC/Northeast Public Radio;; BBC World News; Business Insider; Exame; Global Dispatches Podcast; Here and There, Santa Fe Public Radio; KFSR Dave Marash radio show; Marketplace; MSNBC; Rudy Maxa’s World with the Careys; Voice of America; WAMC Roundtable; World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh

Commentary: CNN; EduTech Magazine; Newsweek; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; U.S. News & World Report


  • Border and Port Security

    The Crisis at the Border: A Primer for Confused Americans

    A holistic update to U.S. immigration laws—based on American immigration needs and the factors that are driving people to make the dangerous trek to cross the border—would be politically challenging. But it would help reduce the numbers of daily migrants and the challenges that migration poses to receiving localities.

    Feb 28, 2024

    The RAND Blog

  • Refugees

    Displaced in Gaza: The Least-Bad Option

    There is currently no good option for protecting civilians amid the Israel-Hamas war. But the least-bad option is to keep civilians in southern Gaza—and provide protection and humanitarian assistance where they are.

    Dec 4, 2023

    Los Angeles Times

  • Refugees

    Normalizing Assad Won't Solve the Syrian Refugee Crisis

    As much as Syrian refugees would like to return home eventually and as much as neighboring countries would welcome an end to the challenges of hosting large refugee communities, now is not the right time for mass Syrian refugee repatriation. Regional governments could instead focus on supporting refugees where they are, especially by allowing them to be legal, productive members of local economies.

    Aug 23, 2023


  • Refugees

    The EU Can't Treat Ukrainian Refugees Like Short-Term Visitors

    Although EU countries, communities, and citizens have been very welcoming to Ukrainian refugees, it is not enough to treat them as short-term visitors, meet their immediate humanitarian needs, and let them wait out the war. By educating and employing them instead, EU countries can enrich their own communities and support Ukraine.

    Jul 24, 2023

    Foreign Policy

  • Ukraine

    One Year After Russia's Invasion of Ukraine: Experts React

    We asked nearly 30 RAND experts to highlight takeaways from the first year of Russia's all-out war—and share what they're watching as the conflict in Ukraine grinds on. Here's what they said.

    Feb 20, 2023

  • Earthquakes

    Earthquake in Turkey, Syria: Insights from RAND Researchers

    Thousands of people have been confirmed dead in one the strongest earthquakes to hit Turkey and Syria in the past century. As search-and-rescue missions ended and recovery began, a handful of RAND researchers shared some of their initial thoughts.

    Feb 14, 2023

    The RAND Blog

  • Immigrants and Emigrants

    Immigrant Location Policies Can Be Done Right, but That Isn't Happening Right Now

    Sudden influxes of migrants across the southwest U.S. border are not new, but they are also increasing. Immigration relocation policies are likely one of the best ways to address migrant surges if done in an organized, humane, and thoughtful way.

    Jan 19, 2023

    The RAND Blog

  • Educational Institutions

    Federal Data Gaps on New Migrant Students Leave Schools Unable to Plan Ahead

    Federal law requires U.S. public schools to serve all school-age children who come to their doors, no matter their immigration status. With thousands of children crossing the southern border each year, schools face complex challenges, foremost of which is simply knowing how many of these new students to expect.

    Nov 9, 2022


  • Emergency Preparedness

    The Disaster Bills Coming Due

    The United States largely waits for a disaster to strike and then spends billions to repair damages. Investing in resilience today can significantly reduce the costs to recover after a disaster strikes.

    Sep 20, 2022

    Santa Monica Daily Press

  • Refugees

    With the Ukrainians, Avoid the Mistakes of Other Refugee Crises

    Because of Russia's invasion, millions of Ukrainians have fled their country or are internally displaced. At this critical moment, European Union countries have an opportunity to avoid some of the worst pitfalls of how the world has handled other refugee crises.

    Mar 25, 2022

    Foreign Policy

  • Ukraine

    Ukraine Invasion Could Spark a Massive Refugee Crisis

    One fallout of a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be a massive refugee or migration crisis. If that happened, there would be significant humanitarian, political, and economic implications for both the Ukrainians who flee and for the European nations they go to.

    Feb 16, 2022


  • Immigrants and Emigrants

    Addressing Immigration Doesn't End at the Border—Schools Need Help

    All children in the United States have a right to a public education, regardless of their immigration status. But schools are not funded or staffed adequately to support a growing student population or to handle sudden surges in enrollment due to large numbers of displaced children arriving at the border.

    Nov 1, 2021

    Houston Chronicle

  • Refugees

    With the Evacuation Over, Afghanistan Is Left to Contend with a Worsening Refugee Crisis

    The more than 100,000 civilians recently evacuated from Afghanistan are a small fraction of those who have lost their homes and livelihoods due to war. To avoid worsening the existing humanitarian crisis, the global community should take swift action, including close coordination with regional and national players.

    Sep 7, 2021

    The National Interest

  • Afghanistan

    Collapse in Afghanistan: Early Insights from RAND Researchers

    The sudden end to America's longest war came as the Taliban rolled into Kabul and the government collapsed. RAND researchers share their thoughts on how to help displaced Afghans, whether the country could again become a safe haven for terrorists, and the geopolitical implications of the collapse.

    Aug 17, 2021

  • Workforce Development

    Job Training Is More Effective When Educators, Government, and Industry Work Together

    The United States is facing economic gaps wider than have been seen in a century. To keep the nation economically strong and able to provide citizens with middle-class lifestyles, educators, government, and private industry need to work together to shape training opportunities.

    Jul 6, 2021

    The RAND Blog

  • Refugees

    Colombia's Trailblazing Model for Refugees

    Colombia recently announced it will give temporary protection status to a million undocumented Venezuelan refugees, with permission to live and work in the country for 10 years. In doing so, it created a new model for managing its own refugee situation and perhaps others elsewhere.

    Mar 26, 2021


  • Disaster Recovery Operations

    Previous Disasters Provide Important Lessons for Central America's Recovery from Hurricanes

    As the global community works to assist Central America in recovering from the disastrous 2020 hurricane season, other recent recovery efforts offer helpful lessons, both for the governments of the region as well as outsiders providing resources and support.

    Jan 11, 2021

    The National Interest

  • Displaced Persons

    A New Way to Manage the Growing Global Refugee Situation

    As of 2020, a full 1 percent of humanity is living in displacement—as refugees, internally displaced persons, or asylum-seekers—because of conflict or persecution. The world's existing strategies for managing the displaced are no longer sufficient, but the next U.S. administration has an opportunity to lead the world in creating a new way forward.

    Dec 17, 2020

    Foreign Policy

  • Refugees

    The Syrian Forever War Has Created Forever Refugees

    Without a formal peace agreement that commits to safety for returnees and creates a foundation for investment in Syria's demolished infrastructure, Syrians will not go home. They fear returning because of reports of returnees being arrested, imprisoned, and tortured.

    Nov 24, 2020

    The National Interest

  • School Finance

    Community College Enrollment Is Way Down. That Could Be Bad for Economic Recovery

    Enrollment at America's community colleges is down by nearly 10 percent compared with before the pandemic, leaving community colleges in a perilous financial position. Without intervention, these institutions may not weather the storm.

    Nov 17, 2020

    The RAND Blog

  • Education Facilities

    Schools Need to Be Planning for the Next 9 Months, Not the Next 9 Weeks

    Schools cannot simply wait out this pandemic, nor will short-term planning and ad-hoc infrastructure get them successfully through this academic year. If schools are to minimize educational losses, large-scale investments should be made now.

    Sep 8, 2020

    The Hill

  • Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

    How to Reopen Schools: Q&A with RAND Experts

    The debate over opening U.S. schools is growing more heated by the day. In this Q&A, RAND researchers discuss the different approaches for reopening, how online learning went in the spring, ways to help disadvantaged students, and more.

    Jul 23, 2020

  • Refugees

    How to Help Refugees and Host Countries Combat COVID-19

    Having escaped conflict and persecution, refugees now risk illness and death from COVID-19. That risk is heightened by a policy regime that focuses largely on refugees in camps, not the almost two-thirds who live in urban areas. But the crisis could provide an opportunity to reform a broken system for the benefit of refugees and host countries alike.

    May 18, 2020

    The National Interest

  • Refugees

    Syrian Refugees Won't Be Going Home Any Time Soon

    Active fighting in Syria is dwindling. But Syria remains divided in a frozen conflict and empty peace, unstable and unlikely to attract the investment in reconstruction, public institutions, job creation, and local reconciliation efforts needed to motivate Syrians in large numbers to return home.

    Apr 19, 2019

    The National Interest

  • Refugees

    Jobs Can Improve the Lives of Syrian Refugees and Their Host Communities—and Support Stability in the Middle East

    Host governments, international development agencies, and donor countries like the United States could take several steps to improve Syrian refugee employment. This would increase self-reliance among Syrian refugees and ease pressures on host communities.

    Mar 11, 2019

    Foreign Policy

  • Cambodia

    Does Nuon Chea Still Have No Regrets?

    Nuon Chea was convicted of genocide in a tribunal in Phnom Penh in November for his role in the Cambodian genocide. Shelly Culbertson relays the story of her trip to interview him at his home in Pailin in 2003.

    Dec 19, 2018

    The Diplomat

  • Displaced Persons

    Europe's Five Strategies for Coping with Migration Pressure

    Migration will likely continue to be a long-term challenge for European politics, institutions, governments, and values. Even with a drop in numbers and the development of institutional capabilities to manage migration, the European Union still has important tasks ahead of it.

    Dec 3, 2018

    The National Interest

  • Standards-Based Education Reform

    Louisiana's Education System Is Evolving: Here's What Parents Need to Know

    Louisiana has taken big steps to improve its education policies and the education of the state's children, from birth to grade 12. Parents can help their children benefit from the reforms by being informed about the changes and knowing how to take advantage of new resources.

    Sep 12, 2018

    The Advocate

  • Peacekeeping and Stability Operations

    If We Don't Get the Peace Right, Iraq Will Slide Back into the Morass

    Actions taken now by the United States, the Iraqi government, and private parties could determine the war-torn country's future. The message the Sunnis receive in these next six months will determine whether Iraq is on the path to stability.

    Feb 12, 2018


  • Refugees

    How the U.S. Can Help Resolve the Rohingya Crisis

    By accepting responsibility for reintegrating the Rohingya refugees, Myanmar has provided an opening to prevent an epic tragedy. Will the United States and the international community take advantage of it?

    Jan 5, 2018

    Foreign Affairs

  • Workforce Development

    Keeping Americans on the Job in a Changing Economy

    Despite calls to bring back U.S. coal mines and factories, the real issue isn't a lack of family-sustaining jobs, it's a mismatch between workers and available jobs.

    Oct 20, 2017

    U.S. News & World Report

  • Gender Equity in the Workplace

    Female Drivers Can Put Saudis on Road to Enhanced Growth

    Allowing women to get behind the wheel will likely lead to significant long-term changes in Saudi Arabia's economy and the participation of women in the labor force.

    Sep 29, 2017

    The Hill

  • Migrants

    Addressing Europe's Migrant Crisis Takes More Than Stopping the Boats from Libya

    Treating migration from Libya as a border security issue has reduced migration across the Mediterranean. But efforts to keep migrants in Libya are fraught with risks, exacerbate a massive human rights problem, and do not address Libya's long-term economic and political stabilization.

    Sep 25, 2017

    Foreign Policy Concepts

  • Political Reform Movements

    The Post–Arab Spring Experience: Q&A with Shelly Culbertson

    It's too early to say whether the Arab Spring will turn out to be a success or not. The Arab Spring was about people deciding what they did not want and rising up against it, but they hadn't worked out what they did want. Many of them still have hope.

    Aug 23, 2017

  • Peacekeeping and Stability Operations

    Moving Beyond Mosul

    The Islamic State group has been defeated in Mosul. But this military routing isn't enough to ensure lasting stability, either in Mosul or in Iraq more broadly. What comes next will require careful planning, diplomacy, implementation, and coordination.

    Jul 18, 2017

    U.S. News & World Report

  • The Urgent Need for an Education Plan in Mosul

    In addition to restoring Mosul's damaged infrastructure, efforts to stabilize the city must include a plan to rebuild education. Students need to make up years of missed K-12 and university education, and ISIS indoctrination needs to be undone.

    Mar 27, 2017

    Fox News Channel

  • Iraq

    Stabilizing Mosul After the Battle Against ISIS

    U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have retaken the east bank of Mosul and are planning to take the west soon. The military operations that oust ISIS are crucial to the city's liberation but failing to get the civilian response right risks a widening civil war.

    Feb 9, 2017


  • It's Too Soon to Write Off the Arab Spring as a Failure

    Pessimistically declaring the Arab Spring a failure in 2016 would be as naive as optimistically declaring it a success in 2011. Something comes next—but what?

    Jun 15, 2016


  • Refugees

    A Different Kind of Refugee Crisis

    In Jordan and Lebanon, middle-income countries with robust public sectors where a significant Syrian population may be present for years to come, solutions should be more about supporting the expansion of existing national public services, rather than creating new, internationally run parallel services.

    May 16, 2016

    U.S. News & World Report

  • Tunisia

    Tunisia Is an Arab Spring Success Story

    Tunisia has not unraveled into civil war like Syria or Libya. It has not undergone a counter-revolution that returned it to the autocracy of its pre-revolution days, like Egypt has. Tunisia is fragile, but its success is vital to the long-term stability and societal health of the Middle East.

    Apr 21, 2016


  • Refugees

    Solutions for Educating Young Syrian Refugees

    Approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees are school-age children. They face a slew of struggles, not the least of which is the lack of education that they need to move forward in life. What can be done to improve the access to and quality of refugee education?

    Apr 21, 2016

    Georgetown Journal of International Affairs

  • Refugees

    Battered by War, Syrian Refugee Kids Need to Be Taught

    More than 700,000 Syrian refugee children are not receiving formal education. Host countries are struggling to create enough spaces to accommodate them in schools, and there are no formal programs to teach children who have missed years of instruction.

    Jan 15, 2016


  • Refugees

    Syrian Refugees: All You Need to Know

    The world can only absorb so many millions of refugees. The civil war in Syria demands a political solution facilitated by international leadership that will bring stability and enable refugees to return to home.

    Sep 17, 2015


  • Refugees

    Help Syria Avoid a 'Lost Generation'

    Young Syrian refugees are brimming with potential, but lack the educational and livelihood pathways through which to channel their energy and aspirations. As the international community looks for ways to end the violence in the region, it must not overlook the plight or the potential of these children.

    Jul 17, 2015

    U.S. News & World Report

  • Refugees

    Syria's Simmering Crisis

    At least half of Syrian refugee children aren't in school. Those who are face risks to the quality of education they receive, a risk they share with host-country children. But by making long-term investments, the international community can help ensure education isn't another casualty of the war.

    Jan 21, 2015


  • Vocational Education

    Building a Sound Technical and Vocational Education and Training System

    Technical and vocational education and training in India has expanded significantly over the past two decades. But quality and relevance remain significant issues. What may be learned from other countries' experiences?

    Dec 31, 2014

    EduTech Magazine

  • School Services

    America's Great Yellow School Buses

    One of the things taken for granted in the United States is the vast network of school buses—about 26 million children ride 480,000 buses every day. But in other parts of the world, getting millions of children to and from the right school, on time, safely, and for a reasonable cost is a significant challenge.

    Sep 9, 2013

    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

  • Signs of New Life in Northern Iraq

    For a region that has seen decades of strife, Kurdistan is emerging as “the other Iraq,” a place where progress is marked by the opening of new shopping malls and the pouring of concrete at countless construction sites.

    Aug 9, 2013

    U.S. News & World Report

  • International Education

    The Middle East's Science Revolution?

    Even as conflict rages, a wave of research and innovation in Arabian Gulf countries is bringing with it significant investment in science and research infrastructure — and even U.S.-style universities, writes Shelly Culbertson.

    Jun 27, 2013


  • Putting the Spring in the Arab Spring

    Qatar has a salsa scene. Dubai hosted the big international Fujairah Latin Festival. The Oman Salsa Festival took place in March. Jordan and Cairo both have a salsa scene. What makes this so conversation-worthy is that it is indicative of a growing cultural openness in parts of the Middle East.

    Jun 17, 2013

    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette