Recruiting in Africa: US faces a stiff competitor in China

When I joined Amherst College in 2015 to lead the college’s international admissions operation, we received a little over 220 applications from Sub-Saharan Africa for the graduating Class of 2019. Fast forward to when this year’s applicants graduate as the Class of 2026: the total number of applications from the region exceeded 980, which is one of the most dramatic increases we have seen among all international regions in the college’s application history.

The rapid growth rate at Amherst is perhaps an unusual case given the college’s needs-blind admissions policy for both domestic and international applicants as well as its commitment to meet 100% of demonstrated need for all admitted students without loans. Coupled with a pandemic-induced, test-optional policy for standardised tests, there’s now little barrier in front of aspiring African students who see Amherst as a potential study destination.

At the same time, Amherst and the many US colleges and universities eager to recruit African students as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic will likely find themselves competing with an unusual but omnipresent player on the continent: China.

A rapidly growing consumer market

In the United States, the overall enrolment of students from Sub-Saharan Africa saw as significant a jump over the past 10 years, as Amherst did – 30%, to be exact, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors data.

Despite the disruptions of the pandemic, where enrolment of international students in the US from many global regions saw double-digit or more than 20% dips, Sub-Saharan Africa saw the lowest decline at 6.3%.

There are many signs that suggest a continuous growth in the number of African students studying overseas. The continent is now one of the fastest-growing consumer markets in the world, and 60% of Africa’s population is under the age of 25.

In addition, there is huge demand for high-quality education that African countries are unable to provide due to a lack of funding and resources. While tertiary education enrolment has grown more than two-fold compared to 20 years ago, Sub-Saharan Africa still struggles to break the 10% mark, far below the world average of 38%.

This has driven many young African students to seek education elsewhere. Among countries benefiting from this influx in talent is China, which has emerged in recent years as one of the largest African student-hosting countries in the world along with France, the United Kingdom and the United States.

According to the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, 81,562 African students studied in China in 2018, a 770% increase compared to 1996, when the number of African students in China broke the 1,000 mark for the first time. The 2018 number was nearly twice the size of African student numbers enrolled in US colleges and universities.

So why China of all places? African students are increasingly drawn to the country’s growing influence on the African continent and globally, easier visa access, better quality of higher education, availability of English-taught programmes, affordable tuition fees and, most notably, the Chinese Government Scholarships.

In 2018, the Chinese government announced at the triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation that China would increase its scholarship offerings to African students from 30,000 in 2015 to 50,000. With that, China had surpassed all Western countries combined to become the largest higher education scholarship provider for African students in the world.

It is now the second largest African student-hosting country behind France. The growing number of scholarship students has also driven up the number of self-funded students. Since 2005, the number of self-funded students has surpassed those on scholarships and the gap has widened exponentially since then.

Financial aid is key

The Chinese state-centred approach to providing full financial support for African students is drastically different from the institutionally focused system in the United States where the scholarship amount is closely tied with institutional resources and commitment.

“Financial aid is very important for African students. Institutions will yield more students if they offer a few full scholarships than many partial ones,” said Diane Weisz Young, regional educational advising coordinator of EducationUSA for West and Central Africa.

While there are African students who can pay the full sticker price of an American college education, for the majority of African students “a hidden cost of a few hundred dollars could make or break their ability to study in the United States”, Young added. This has made the full-ride scholarships offered by the Chinese government ever more attractive.

Post-graduation, the ever-expanding presence of Chinese businesses and government projects on the African continent mean that African students who are trained in China have more potential job opportunities when they return home.

Since 2003, the annual influx of Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) to Africa has grown dramatically, from a mere US$74.8 million in 2003 to a staggering US$5.4 billion in 2018. China’s FDI to Africa decreased in 2019 to US$2.7 billion, but despite COVID, it rose back up to US$4.2 billion in 2020.

According to a 2017 McKinsey report, which included the survey results of more than 1,000 Chinese companies in manufacturing, real estate, trade, services and construction in eight African countries, 89% of their employees were Africans.

China has created several million jobs on the continent and nearly two-thirds of Chinese companies offered skills training, half provided apprenticeships and a third also introduced new technologies.

This progress is boosting China’s reputation among African students. The 2022 African Youth Survey revealed that 77% of African youth saw China as the most influential foreign power in Africa.

Because of this, conversations about studying in China have become more common among African students, even at EducationUSA advising centres that introduce higher education opportunities in the United States. Young shared that it is more common nowadays to hear African students express interest in studying in both the United States and China.

The growing number of African students studying in China is largely welcomed by leaders of African countries as nearly all African students return home after their studies due to China’s strict visa rules. The opposite happens when students study in the West; upon graduating, the majority of them do not return home.

“This is advantageous not only to African countries who desperately need a workforce that is trained, but equally to China as it spreads its influence in Africa,” said Goolam Mohamedbhai, former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities. Mohamedbhai sees this collaboration as a “win-win” as it prevents brain drain from African countries and enhances China’s soft power on the continent through providing educational assistance.

Implications for US institutions

Given equal access, Young believes that African students would still prefer an American education over a Chinese one because of the better overall quality of higher education and the campus and academic resources available in the US. At the same time, challenges in obtaining an American student visa, the ever-present racism on and off college campuses and gun violence will continue to pose hurdles for African students.

Unlike the clear-cut language of the Chinese Government Scholarships, financial aid policies at US colleges and universities are especially challenging to navigate for international students, particularly when they need full or near-full financial support, which is the case for most African students.

In addition to the ambiguous language – designed intentionally or unintentionally – there are often hidden costs that take international students by surprise, in many cases causing them to unwillingly give up on the hard-earned offer of a place. All of these will be weighed by African students as they continue to seek educational opportunities abroad.

With the growing influence of China among African youth, convincing them to choose the United States will no doubt require more dedicated efforts in the years to come. US colleges and universities should take this as an opportunity to re-examine their recruitment strategies for Africa in order to make them more inviting, inclusive and affordable.

We cannot rest on our laurels or we may risk losing some of the most innovative and talented minds that will enrich the learning for all on our campuses as well as opportunities to cultivate future leaders that will transform the continent in ways beyond our imagination.

Xiaofeng Wan is an associate dean of admission and the coordinator of international recruitment at Amherst College, United States. He is also a doctoral candidate in the executive EdD in higher education programme at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development.