Influences on African Students’ Decisions to Study in the United States
By Nancy Keteku
Nancy Keteku is the educationUSA Regional Educational Advising Coordinator for sub-Saharan Africa
Whether recruiting or evaluating applicants from overseas, we find ourselves asking, “What made this student decide to apply to this particular school?” Or, “How can I attract good students from Africa to my school?” This article explores the factors that push students to leave their home countries and pull them to study in the United States, focusing particularly on shifts in the last few years.Over the past decade, the number of sub-Saharan African students in the United States has more than doubled, to 32,800 in 2005-6, constituting 6 percent of the world’s total and rising faster than any other region. This is impressive, considering that U.S. education is expensive and African countries number among the world’s poorest. What influences African students’ decisions to study in the U.S., and how can international educators continue to attract them?
The Push Factor
First of all, the “push factor” is a strong current running throughout Africa, stronger in some countries than others. Asked their primary reason for seeking higher education abroad, African students will most often cite the poor quality of the education system at home, followed by a long litany of complaints that stem from a single source: underfunding. Take strikes, for example. In some countries it is hard to imagine an academic year being completed on time. A Sierra Leonean newspaper in 1994 quoted a university administrator on the regularity of strikes: “During the first term, the students go on strike; second term, it’s the junior staff, and then third term the senior staff take their turn.”
During the last five years, as fee-free primary and secondary education has been introduced, school enrollments have mushroomed, leading to predictions that Kenya, for example, will need 40,000 additional university places before the end of the decade. This year, Kenya proposes expanding university admissions by 60 percent, to 16,000 – but it takes an A-/B+ average to be admitted, leaving many qualified students disappointed. In Francophone countries, all students who pass the formidable Baccalaureat exams at the end of secondary school are automatically admitted to universities, and some are still paid stipends that serve as a disincentive to graduation, resulting in overcrowding that boggles the imagination. In the few Anglophone universities that provide residential accommodation, rooms designed for one or two students now sleep as many as a dozen, some legal and others “perching,” as it’s called in Ghana, where “in-out-out-in” schemes have been adopted to allocate rooms only to freshmen and seniors.
Overcrowding and underfunding mean that students must arrive at lectures hours early to secure seats. Photocopiers supply more materials than libraries can, with reports that fighting over scarce books at Ethiopian universities is not uncommon. Internet labs and cafes, the products of private enterprise, spring up like mushrooms, spelling salvation for aspiring scholars but not bridging the knowledge gap.
Whispers – and sometimes more audible groans – of corruption in university admissions persist in many countries. One suspects that the rumors are more robust than the actuality, but the rumors reflect a mindset that is hard to counter. Did officials in Cameroon really lower the nation’s passing grade on the Baccalaureat in order to admit the Minister’s daughter? Why was a student with mediocre grades admitted to electrical engineering when his straight-A classmate was assigned to agricultural mechanization? Is it true that members of one ethnic group or political party enjoy open-door admissions to the medical school? So the rumors swirl, undermining trust and making the Registrar’s work even harder.
Political pressure compounds the problem, pushing scholars out of their countries, especially in Eritrea, DR Congo, and Zimbabwe. However, extreme politics have also produced some of the most admirable scholars we have ever met; deprivation somehow clarifies people’s goals and builds their courage and determination. We marvel at the resilience of these students, who persist in finding paths to learning.
One of the hardest put-downs African students have to face is the arbitrary assignment of majors. “I applied to study finance, but they gave me philosophy and archaeology instead,” is a complaint we hear: places in the more desirable finance major fill quickly and students with the highest school-leaving exam grades relegate others to areas where demand is lower.
The Pull Factor
But negative scenes at home aren’t sufficient to propel students; they have to be convinced that the grass is greener on the other side. This is where the “pull factor” comes in.
The supreme attraction for African students to the United States is – you guessed it – money. The United States is the only country whose universities award funding on a significant scale without government intervention. Canadian, Australian, and British education may be less expensive, but many African students cannot afford to pay even the lower costs of tuition in these countries where scholarships are rare. Those who don’t have wealthy (and generous) uncles have no choice but to gear up for the challenge of admission with funding at U.S. institutions, which can be five to ten times more competitive than admission without funding. It’s tricky for international students to grasp the concept of need-based, partial financial aid, but the neediest students catch on fast.
In many ways, the State Department’s EducationUSA Advising Centers  are becoming a niche operation, mainly attracting the most honest, needy, and hardworking students who have no money and therefore must apply to U.S. schools that offer full funding. Advising centers offer what this group needs: intensive, objective, comprehensive guidance, maximizing their ability to compete successfully for admission with funding. In contrast, competent students whose parents can afford to pay at least $15,000 a year have many options, and may look for shortcuts offered by commercial agents or simply depend on relatives and friends to make their decisions for them.
Because many students have no choice but to sell their academic potential to the highest bidder, full scholarships offered by China, Russia, Gulf states, and other countries ranging from Hungary to Singapore also attract thousands of applicants. China and Russia award one hundred scholarships a year to Zambians, for example, and even Malaysia stages college fairs in Lusaka. Students complain that the United States offers very little in terms of government scholarships (the Fulbright being the chief example, but with fewer than five scholarships per year in most African countries, it is merely a drop in the bucket). What advisors try to teach these students is that tens of thousands of U.S. scholarships are available to those willing to do the hard work involved in the application process.
So money, or America’s unique approach to financial aid, is the number one pull factor. But what else appeals to African students?
Freedom to Choose
The initial attraction to U.S. higher education for African students is expressed in terms of facilities: “I want to go to America because they have big libraries, acres of computers, and ultra-equipped labs.” African students especially relish the prospect of rolling up their sleeves and getting practical experience or doing their own research. When we tell them that Harvard’s endowment alone is greater than the combined endowments of all the universities in the UK, they listen. When we tell them that American universities spent $43 billion on research last year, more than the economies of many African countries, they listen. And they want to be part of this wealth.
As they learn more about what the United States has to offer, African students develop an appetite for academic freedom: access and choice, two luxuries they never imagined gaining for themselves. The ability to choose a major, to choose which courses to take, to design one’s own independent studies, and to call one’s own shots can be a transformative experience for students. These are powerful pull factors for the more sophisticated of potential applicants.
Students marvel at the prospect of being able to choose their majors freely in the United States, with the chance to explore for a year before declaring. They further revel in the idea of college offering a clean slate, whereby students can delve into new fields that they did not study in secondary school. American recruiters can capitalize on this by emphasizing the freedom of choice and the openness of all majors to all students.
U.S. schools like to advertise small classes and close relationships with professors, but African students don’t respond to these lures until they have experienced them; these are alien concepts to students who have been conditioned to fending for themselves, in schools where teacher attention is best avoided. By their second year, however, they rave about their professors and the potential unleashed through their support.
Many students have a hard time expressing it, but they’re looking for greater challenge. They know something is missing, that their intellectual curiosity is not satisfied, and the more they learn about U.S. higher education, the more they see its potential to open up their minds. This is particularly true of students who want to integrate disparate fields of study; as one Ghanaian student put it, “I was accepted into medical school at home, but I wanted more: I wanted to double major in biochemistry and music, and take dance and education courses.” She is now a pediatrician with a research specialization in sickle cell anemia.
Other pull factors that attract African students to the United States include the opportunity to work, the human diversity, a solid grounding in English language according great advantage to their careers back home, the potential for lifelong networks for professional development and business, the exposure to entrepreneurship, the opportunity to develop leadership skills and (although we’re loathe to admit it) the potential for permanent immigration and a more comfortable life. That America is the greatest meritocracy on earth is, in the final analysis, the most powerful “pull” of all.
The Other Side of the Coin
While “push-pull” attracts African students to the United States, many are torn by the “pull-push” dilemma: the positive “pull” of staying home and the negative “push” against venturing abroad.
The most positive-minded students realize that by leaving home, especially for undergraduate study, they will sacrifice opportunities to create local networks and to position themselves for future careers. Those who have more ambition than courage may decide to stay home and become big fish in smaller ponds. For the practical-minded, the low cost of studying at local universities is significant: in most countries, the comprehensive cost of a year’s study is less than the airfare to the United States.
Staying home keeps students close to their families; the prospect of “uprooting myself from everything I’ve ever loved” gave considerable pause to an African student bound for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology . For the fathers of young women, marriage options are a major issue (not so for their mothers, who passionately support their daughters’ decisions to study abroad, trusting marriage to take care of itself). In short, wise students recognize that study abroad carries the risk of changing their identity. Returning home with an American accent is frowned upon almost everywhere in Africa, with such people regarded as sellouts.
Meeting Demand at Home and on the Continent
The rapid expansion of higher education opportunities in African countries has given students more options than ever before. Africa’s public universities are growing as fast as they can; the growth is uneven and emphasizes quantity over quality, but students are rushing through doors that are now open to them. Uganda pioneered the concept of ‘cost-sharing’ (a euphemism for tuition payments) for students who would previously have been denied admission, and was able to double faculty salaries and student enrollment in one fell swoop. Part-time graduate programs, such as executive MBA programs, have caught on like wildfire, cutting the opportunity cost and increasing return on investment. Ten years ago these programs were barely respected, but now their graduates carry clout in business circles.
Private universities, as well as tertiary-level non-degree programs, are opening at an astonishing rate as governments pass legislation and set up accreditation boards to supervise this long-needed development. In Ethiopia, nearly a quarter of all postsecondary students are now enrolled in private institutions, without a penny in government subsidies, up from zero a decade ago. These universities charge about $10 per credit hour. At the same time, Ethiopia has established 11 new public universities. Private universities are more responsive to the market, and offer the majors in highest demand (business and information technology), for which people are willing to pay market prices. Tuition, usually pegged at $2,000-$4,000 per year, is adequate to balance budgets, although institutional investors, often religious bodies or private business leaders, provide the capital. A visit to African university websites, especially the private ones, reveals their pride in listing the different nationalities represented on campus. Public acceptance of private universities, while initially slow, has rapidly accelerated, especially for those with genuine links to North American or Western European academia. Examples of these include Suffolk University in Senegal, ABTI American University in Nigeria, and Ashesi University  in Ghana.
Africans have long traveled within Africa in search of education, starting 500 years ago at the famed university at Timbuktu in northern Mali. From the 1920s, when British and French colonial masters decreed that only a handful of universities were needed for the entire continent, to today, with countries such as Ghana, Senegal, Uganda and South Africa becoming magnets or havens for aspiring students, African unity is promoted through educational exchange.
The United Nations University  network has established schools such as the Regional Institute of Population Studies  at the University of Ghana, to serve regional needs. The University of Ghana , now 60 years old, is committed to enrolling 10 percent of its student body from outside Ghana: Nigerians and Americans are the two largest groups. Exchange programs take French majors from Ghana to Senegal, and English majors from Niger to Nigeria. While waiting for their universities to be built, Gambians forged agreements with Nigerian universities and Malians went to Cote D’Ivoire. Kenyans who prefer the A-level system go to school in Uganda. South Africa is the strongest magnet, offering high quality at low cost, especially to citizens of neighboring SADC (Southern African Development Community) countries. South Africa’s MBA programs at universities such as Witwatersrand  and Cape Town  attract students from dozens of countries. Mozambican parents feel safer sending their children to neighboring South Africa where they can keep an eye on them, although Angolans are more likely to study in Portugal.
The expansion of educational opportunities within Africa has radically altered people’s options for higher education, particularly for the so-called ‘middle group’ – average students who a decade ago couldn’t get any kind of university admission at home and therefore turned to the U.S. – seeking the least expensive colleges and patching together unreliable financing from shaky sources. Those who managed to convince Consular Affairs to issue them visas often landed on college doorsteps pleading poverty and falling into arrears before dropping out. Although such students still show up, many more of them are now staying home.
Hurdles to U.S. Study
What pushes students away from U.S. study, discouraging them from applying? Cost and complexity. Students and their families need in-depth advising in order to plan their finances adequately, a responsibility that dominates much of educationUSA’s advising process. Partial financial aid that can’t begin to close the gap is particularly frustrating: “Don’t they realize that I can’t afford to pay $15,000 any more than I can afford to pay $30,000?” Students are desperate for accurate information about costs and the availability of aid, which should be plastered across the front page of every international admissions website.
Moreover, many students are overwhelmed by the complexity of choices and decisions generated by an educational system with 3,600 institutions and 17 million students – especially hard for those who come from countries with only one university. The holistic application process is confusing to students accustomed to their national examination grades being the sole determinant, and standardized testing compounds the frustration because it is inaccessible, expensive, and culturally alien. If U.S. schools could take one step to make themselves more attractive to international students, it would be to simplify their application process and require testing only when the score is truly essential to the admissions decision.
Many people believe that visas constitute a barrier to U.S. admissions. To this we note that visa issuance rates in Africa have always been among the lowest in the world, with the result that it didn’t get any tougher after 9/11. In several African countries, we see F-1 visa issuance rates below 20 percent, a travesty by any definition. Yet our EducationUSA advising centers report that students who use their services enjoy 95 percent visa issuance, a clear sign that well-prepared students can get visas. F-1 visas issued to sub-Saharan African countries increased by 1 percent last year, to 11,655.
In conclusion, this article attempts to sensitize international educators to the issues that influence African students’ decisions, so that they can open their doors wider to people who will enrich American educational institutions. Future articles will discuss individual countries, financing approaches, and resources for credential evaluation. Questions and comments are welcome: [email protected] .
Editor’s note : This is the first in a series of occasional papers authored by Regional Educational Advising Coordinators and other educationUSA employees. The series will explore factors promoting and hindering academic flows between the United States and different regions of the world.