54% of African student visa applications denied by the US
The refusal rate of 54% of student visas in 2022 is up from 44% in 2015, according to a report titled The Interview of a Lifetime: An analysis of visa denials and international student flows to the US, from the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, and Shorelight, two US advocacy groups that promote policies in support of immigrant students.
While the refusal rate for African students applying for visas is higher than for students belonging to other geographical categories of visa applicants, it is roughly in line with an across-the-board rise in refusal rates, which suggests that the United States is becoming a less welcoming place to foreign students.
By 2030, just seven years from now, young Africans are expected to constitute 42% of the world’s youth population, and by 2050 are expected to number 1.1 billion.
The trends outlined in The Interview of a Lifetime suggest that the United States is poised to lose out in the competition for students – just at the time that the American colleges and universities will be in the grips of what demographers call the ‘demographic cliff’, the drop each year of some 500,000 students from the cohort born following the 2008 financial crisis – note the report’s authors, Dr Rajika Bhandari and Jill Welch, both senior advisers to the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, and Shorelight’s leading managers, Shelley Landry, a senior director of government affairs, and Hilary O’Haire, the executive director of analytics.
Rejection rate on the rise
According to the report, since 2018, the total number of students from Africa enrolled in American colleges and universities has grown from 47,251 to 49,308. Over that same period, however, the rejection rate has grown six percentage points, from 48% to 54%. As a result some 92,051 potentially qualified African students were denied a visa. The authors of The Interview of a Lifetime describe them as 92,051 ‘Missed Opportunity Students’.
In technical terms, these prospective African students failed to qualify for the F-1 Visa. The F-1 Visa category allows foreign students to enter and study full-time in institutions that are certified by the US government and is mandatory for immigrant international students.
Negative public narrative towards immigrants
The report contains evidence that American immigration officials are becoming more apt to refuse student visas overall. Between 2021 and 2022, for example, the refusal rate for South Americans rose from 20% to 30%, while the rise in numbers of Australians and Pacific islanders being denied study visas rose even more starkly: from 8% to about 25%. Rejection rates from Europe and North America (which includes Mexico) have also risen but by only a few percentage points.
Although the report has not identified the specific African countries of origin whose students were heavily affected by the visa denials, the researchers found that since 2018 refusal rates have consistently been higher for Western and Central Africa than for Eastern and Southern Africa.
In 2021, for example, the refusal rate for Western and Central Africa was 57% and 64%, respectively, while for Eastern and Southern Africa the rates were 43% and 10%. Last year, the rates for Western and Central Africa were 71% and 61%; for Eastern and Southern Africa the rates were 48% and 16%, respectively.
“But when Southern Africa is removed from the equation, the visa denial rate jumps to 57%, suggesting that most of the denials were concentrated in other parts of Africa,” noted the report.
At least in terms of approving foreign student visas from Africa, as University World News reported last June, the situation in Canada is much the same. Refugees and Citizenship Canada rejected 59% of the visa applications from English-speaking Africans and 74% from French-speaking Africans seeking to study in Canada’s colleges and universities.
But the question remains as to the reasons behind African students being denied opportunities to study in the US universities compared to their peers from the rest of the world. The report, however, suggested that it might be a reflection of emerging US national policies that are fuelled by a negative public narrative toward immigrants.
While President Joe Biden’s administration is significantly more open to immigration than was that of former US president Donald J Trump, the tenor of the American debate over immigration has not moved much from when Trump described Haiti, El Salvador and African states as “shithole countries”.
Yesterday, for example, the Republican controlled House of Representatives passed the Visa Overstay Enforcement Act of 2023 which imposes new penalties, including fines and/or prison terms of six months on individuals who overstay their visas.
Last June, 31 Republican lawmakers in Washington backed a group of workers in the high-tech industry who are suing the Federal government over changes the administration made to the F-1 visa program that would allow foreign students to remain in the country and work for up to three years after they graduate.
The problem with interviews
Emmanuel Smadja, the chief executive officer and co-founder of MPOWER Financing, a Washington DC-based company that provides educational loans to international students, says the visa denial problem may be systemic.
First-hand accounts from African students suggest that they face challenges securing visa interviews and according to the report, some are having to jump through hoops just to travel to other countries at considerable expense. Outside South Africa, most US visa interviews for students in Sub-Saharan Africa are mainly held in Accra, Lagos and Nairobi.
In their analysis, the authors of the report faulted some of the grounds that are used by the US consular officials to deny African student visas.
The report cited lapses such as students being ill-prepared for the visa interview or failure to demonstrate a strong connection with the US. A few tense minutes of a visa interview should not be used to determine their academic future, as too often African students encounter challenges securing visa interview slots.
Doubts about funding
Drawing insights from MPOWER, Bhandari’s team noted that many African students, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, were denied visas even when they are qualified and have funding.
The report highlights the issue of 3,000 students from Sub-Saharan Africa that were accepted for graduate studies at a top US university last year but only 60% were granted visas despite being admitted and having secured the necessary funding.
Further, there are indicators that African students were denied visas for not demonstrating that they had sufficient funds to support their studies in the US. Concerns had also been raised about fraud but the Presidents’ Alliance, a coalition of 450 US university leaders, had been quoted pointing out that in most cases, African students are the victims, but not the perpetrators of the fraud.
In an interview with The PIE News, Farook Lalji of Kenya-based Koala Education Consultants said that “applying for a university abroad means paying visa fees, a deposit to the university, paying for a medical and other related costs” and that the “fear of being denied a visa after all that is a factor in people falling for fake schemes that come with an alleged guarantee of getting a visa”.
He advised students to make sure they were dealing with licensed agents. “If you must deal with a briefcase or suspicious agent, then do not pay until the job is done, just like it happens with other things in life. In this case do not pay until you have obtained all the information about the university and have obtained all necessary documents,” he warned prospective students.
On the issue of visa denial for lack of adequate funds, Bhandari and associates noted that discussion forums of groups that serve African international students are rife with worries about students who have met every admissions and financial requirement and are seemingly well-prepared for the high-stakes visa interviews but are nonetheless denied visas.
Presidents and vice-chancellors concerned
American university presidents and vice-chancellors are concerned by the high rates of visa denials and share perceptions that it is harder for students in certain countries to acquire a visa than in other countries.
“Some higher education officials reported that students from some African nations, for example, are more likely to receive a student visa when applying in a non-African country, such as Australia, to study in the US,” stated the report.
Is a shift in policy possible?
Unfortunately, whereas visa data and enrolment datasets point to current demands for a US education by students from African countries, the report says there are no indicators as to whether the US visa policy will shift in favour of such students in the near future.
Aware of Africa’s emerging demographic trends, some countries such as France and China, are aggressively recruiting African students, while the interest shown by US university presidents and vice-chancellors are being frustrated by visa denials.
In that context, Bhandari and associates raised the issue as to whether the US is missing out on top academic talent from Africa.
Quoting Rebecca Winthrop, the director of the Center for University Education at the Brookings Institution, the Washington-based think tank that conducts research analysis on education and public policy issues, the study team noted that the growth in the world’s labour market will in the years ahead be in Africa.
“As other parts of the world begin to age, Africa will grow its population and today’s children will be the talent tomorrow’s global companies will be recruiting,” stated the report.
In its vision of more recruitment of African students into US universities and colleges, the Presidents’ Alliance and Shorelight are urging the US authorities to issue new guidelines that would reduce visa denials for African students.
For instance, they are recommending that competency in English should not be a reason for refusing a visa to a foreign student who wants to attend for instance a low-level institution, or a community college in the US.
“Consular officers should leave questions of academic choice and qualifications to be decided between the student and the institution, instead focusing on evaluating whether the student meets entry requirements,” stated the report.
The argument is that denial of a visa should not occur based on English-language competency, as it is the purview of the universities and colleges to evaluate language proficiency and to provide English-language training programmes if necessary.
The report criticised visa denials based on the inability to provide proof of multiple years of funding, given that in the US many students and their families pay for their education as they go on with their studies.
“Proof of funding for the entire duration of the academic programme is not reasonable and should not be a requirement for a visa,” stated the report.
Consular officers should ‘stop speculating’
Further, the report recommends that post-graduation work interests should also not be grounds for visa denial. The issue is that, despite the updated US foreign affairs manual that makes it clear that consular officers should stop speculating about international students’ intentions in the future but instead evaluate their intent at the moment of the interview, many African students continue to be denied a visa because of that outdated clause.
The report says clear guidelines should be issued on how to evaluate international student visa applications for forcibly displaced students from their countries’ of origin, not only in the case of the African students, or their counterparts from the Global South, but throughout the world.
Amid efforts to get rid of perceptions of discrimination, the Presidents’ Alliance and Shorelight are urging the US government to provide transparent and clear information to students about visa denials.
“The issue is that when prospective students are denied visas, they are often left to guess what aspects of their application may have led to the denial,” stated the report.
The two bodies have also urged the US Congress to modernise immigration law and, more specifically, to expand the criteria on how to reduce visa denials, taking into account that the US domestic demographic trends and workforce shifts point to the need for an inclusive approach to attract diverse global talent.
But despite such robust appeals, it is not clear as to whether the negative public narrative toward immigrants is about to change in favour of students from Africa.