A profile of Sub-Saharan African students in America

The United States is by far the most popular destination country for potential students from Sub-Saharan Africa, with high quality education being the main drawcard, according to a recent study. Interestingly, America’s African-born population has higher levels of education attainment than the overall foreign population.

“Nine out of every 10 prospective international students in Nigeria and South Africa listed the United States as their first-choice destination in an open-ended question,” says a report from the New York-based Institute of International Education, or IIE.

What International Students Think About US Higher Education: Attitudes and perceptions of prospective students from around the world was produced earlier this year by the IIE Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact, and is a new, revised and expanded edition of an earlier study. We looked at what it found among African students.

Quality is the drawcard

The crux of the matter is that the US is perceived to have a top quality higher education system and many scholarships, especially for talented students.

UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics predicts that the US will remain a strong magnet for students from Sub-Saharan Africa seeking a high quality education, despite the expansion of higher education in most African countries and competition from other popular destinations for globally mobile students.

As of last year, there were 31,113 students from Sub-Saharan Africa and they comprised 4% of the 886,052 international students in the US. The top Sub-Saharan African countries of origin are Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Cameroon and Ethiopia.

The study, which focused on Nigeria and South Africa in its Africa section, found the United States to be by far the most popular destination among students: it was ranked the first choice for 89% of prospective Nigerian and 92% of South African students.

In the two countries, the US is also regarded by students as welcoming and is perceived to have good student support services.

The United Kingdom came second, being the first choice of 6% of Nigerian and 4% of South African students and the most popular second choice. Canada was in third place as the first choice destination for 3% of Nigerian and 1% of South African students.

The majority of Sub-Saharan African students were enrolled at the undergraduate level – 56% – while 29% were postgraduates and 15% were in non-degree courses or optional practical training.

According to the study, in the last academic year 7,912 Nigerian students were studying at US universities, which was an 8.3% increase over the previous year.

“Currently, Nigeria is ranked position 25 overall, among places of origin of international students in the US,” says the study, and it is Africa’s biggest foreign student source country.

Regarding areas of study, 30% of Nigerian students aspiring to study in the US said they would like to study engineering, 23% physical and life sciences and 17% business and management. In contrast, 27% of South African students preferred business and management, 23% engineering and 12% applied arts.

Regarding degree level, 54% of Nigerian students were interested in an undergraduate degree abroad, while 43% were interested in masters or PhD degrees. Among South Africans, 48% were seeking undergraduate studies, 23% postgraduate studies and 22% a professional degree.

Africans have high educational achievement

Emerging trends for prospective students from Nigeria, South Africa and several other Sub-Saharan African countries to acquire quality higher education seems to be partly driven by the educational attainment of foreign African immigrants to America.

According to the United States Census Bureau, compared with America’s overall foreign-born population, the foreign-born from Africa had higher levels of educational achievement between 2008 and 2012.

In a survey, The Foreign-Born Population from Africa: 2008-2012, released last October, Christine Gambino and associates at the Census Bureau said the high levels of educational attainment among African-born people were in part due to the large numbers of educated Africans who had chosen to emigrate and-or had gone to the US to study.

The survey found that 41% of the African-born population had a bachelor degree compared with 28% of the overall foreign-born population in the US.

The four African countries of birth with the highest proportions of bachelor and higher degrees among their expat populations in the US were Egypt at 64%, Nigeria at 61%, South Africa at 57% and Kenya at 47%.

“While 32% of the overall foreign-born population had less than a high school education, this contrasted sharply with only 12% for the African-born population, as represented by such countries as South Africa (3%), Nigeria (4%), and Egypt and Kenya at 5% each,” wrote Gambino and her research associates.

Perceptions and attitudes of prospective students from Sub-Saharan Africa are construed to be shaped by the quality of African immigrants to the US, according to the Gambino study.

But in other destination countries, student mobility and the quest for quality higher education are being influenced by a wide range of factors including aggressive recruitment, unmet demand for higher education in Africa, the perceived value of a foreign qualification, education hubs and research access abroad.

According to International Trends in Higher Education 2015, a report released recently by the University of Oxford, with Sub-Saharan Africa’s population predicted to rise from the current 1.2 billion to 2.4 billion in 2050, demand for higher education will continue to outstrip supply.

“In recent years, we predicted the number of African students studying in Britain – including Oxford – would increase over the decade and this pattern is reflected in the latest admission figures,” notes the study. In this regard, over the past five years, the number of Oxford students from Ghana and Nigeria has more than doubled.

Obstacles to success

Quality higher education in the US and Western Europe is alluring to African students aspiring to acquire qualifications in foreign destinations, but many encounter barriers that prevent them from realising their dreams.

According to the IIE, over 62% of prospective students worldwide interviewed for the study felt that tuition fees in America were expensive while 51% perceived British higher education to be costly.

Also, 50% of respondents believed the US had difficult or complex student visa procedures, against 24% who thought the same about Britain’s student visas – though the survey was held before the UK tightened up considerably on student visas.

About 55% of respondents said Britain had a high cost of living, followed by the US at 42%.

A large number of African international students also face challenges in integrating into the culture of foreign universities.

Those challenges leave some African students feeling disillusioned and cynical about the value of an international education, according to Dr Denis Hyams-Ssekasi, a senior lecturer in business management at University Campus Oldham in Britain, Dr Christine Mushibwe, executive dean at the University of Africa in Lusaka, Zambia, and Dr Elizabeth Frances Caldwell, a lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, UK.

In a study titled International Education in the United Kingdom: The challenges of the golden opportunity for black-African students, they argue that while international education is often seen as a ticket to future international mobility, it can spark lifelong adjustment problems related to cultural differences, separation and transition issues.

What is assumed by students in Africa to be a golden opportunity is often masked by challenges that threaten the job of attaining higher education and skills in foreign universities.

However, taking into account the academic success of many Africans in the United States, there is little doubt that many students are able to navigate the sometimes stormy seas of international education.