The geography of African students in the United States

Five cities – Lagos, Nairobi, Accra, Addis Ababa and Cairo – are the home towns of the largest contingents of African foreign students studying in universities and colleges in the United States, according to a report from the Brookings Institution and JPMorgan Chase.

The report, The Geography of Foreign Students in US Higher Education: Origins and destinations, shows that between 2008 and 2012 the five cities collectively sent 15,107 students out of 524,000 full-time students from 94 cities globally who were issued with F-1 visas.

This category of document is one of the three avenues that allow foreign students to enter the United States, depending on the type of educational institution and mode of study.

Lagos was reported to be the city of origin of 4,741 students, Nairobi 4,191 students, Accra 2,416, Addis Ababa 2,078 and Cairo 1,681.

Economic benefits of foreign students

While the numbers were relatively small compared to those from the Asian metro cities of Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai and Hyderabad, they were significant in terms of economic benefits that they took to American destinations.

According to Neil Ruiz, associate fellow for the Brookings metropolitan policy programme, in total the African students paid about US$300 million for tuition fees and an additional US$165 million in living costs.

“Foreign students provide economic benefits to their US metropolitan destinations as they heavily rely on personal and family funds to pay for their education and upkeep while in the United States,” said Ruiz, principal researcher of the study.

According to the report, foreign students also contributed to their new metropolitan destinations by bringing in valuable skills and serving as bridges to their home towns.

African students are viewed as assets to American local business communities that are seeking to expand to wider global horizons, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Few in science

But while American higher education is robust, with top research and cutting-edge technology, relatively few African students are taking full advantage to study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – disciplines.

According to the Brookings report, of the 15,107 African students enrolled in universities in 118 metropolitan cities in the United States, only 28% of students from Nairobi, 31% from Accra and 40% from Lagos studied STEM disciplines compared to 80% from Hyderabad, 62% from Mumbai and 77% from Pune.

The report also showed that most African students were studying at undergraduate level and very few were in PhD or other postgraduate programmes. About 60% of students from Lagos and Nairobi were undergraduates and only 6% and 7% respectively were doing PhDs.

African mobility trends

Lagos and Nairobi appear likely to remain the top African cities of origin of international students in the United States.

The number of Nigerian students in America has been on a general upward trend since the 1990s as a result of recurring crises in Nigerian higher education. According to statistics from the Institute of International Education, or IIE, in 2008 Nigeria replaced Kenya as the only African country in the top 20 places of origin and it remains in that position.

“In the 2012-13 academic year, 7,316 students from Nigeria were studying in the United States, up 4% from the previous year,” noted an IIE fact sheet flowing from its latest Open Doors survey on student mobility in and out of America.

The number of African foreign students in United States metropolitan destinations is likely to remain small, taking into account the continent’s limited consumer and investment markets.

“Enrolment trends indicated that 75% of foreign students came from places with populations of over five million and only 11% of F-1 visa students were from small cities with under 2.5 million people,” noted the report.

Consequently, large Asian cities are likely to continue dominating the list of largest home markets for US foreign students. For instance, during the 2008-12 period, Seoul sent 56,000 full-time degree students, accounting for 5% of all such students.

While population and geographical aspects might appear favourable to some African cities, the economic status of those metropoles might hinder students seeking education abroad.

Although in the last few years Sub-Saharan Africa had been on average posting gross domestic product growth of around 5% a year, most of the gain has been erased by rapid population growth, corruption, health problems and adverse impacts of climate change.

Consequently, few cities in Sub-Saharan Africa could be classified as 'economically emerging' compared to the Asian cities that have sent the bulk of F-1 visa students to the United States.

The crux of the matter is that countries that have experienced rapid economic growth not only have a growing middle-class that can afford to send children to study abroad, but have also instituted scholarship programmes for international study in the past decade.

Brain drain concerns

But as Ruiz pointed out, there are justified fears of a brain drain occurring if high-skilled foreign students from developing countries – especially from African and small nations – study in America and stay there.

As a result, few countries in Africa as a matter of policy have been encouraging or giving generous scholarships to students to study in the United States in large numbers.

Notably, the report highlights the idea that African expatriates can have a positive impact on their home communities from abroad and high-skilled migrants can serve as bridges between origin and destination communities, acting as conduits for knowledge transfer and valuable business linkages.

But this has yet to gain widespread acceptance in Sub-Saharan Africa.

With details emerging of proposals that the United States issue permanent residency to foreign students who graduate from American universities in fields in short-supply in the global labour market, more roadblocks are likely to be erected on Sub-Saharan African students’ access to foreign education, especially in the United States.