Why the Next Wave of International Students May Come From Africa

Experts following international enrollment trends believe Africa will be the next recruiting hotspot for international students.
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Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Updated on April 3, 2023
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  • In the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic caused drops in international enrollment, but that drop was smaller among students coming from Africa.
  • Meanwhile, student interest from once-reliable sources like China seems to be waning.
  • The result: A potential boom in enrollments of students from nations such as Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana.

U.S. colleges and universities are increasingly looking to a new source for international students: Africa.

BestColleges spoke with experts who said they see encouraging signs from the continent that had, until recently, been the subject of little focus for international recruitment.

But as the recruitment industry continues its COVID-19 pandemic recovery, Africa could be a hotbed for new students, thanks to a growing population of eligible applicants with few college choices in their home countries.

Samba Dieng, executive director of international programs at Louisiana State University (LSU), said there is still work to be done to bridge the gap to make U.S. institutions more accessible to these students.

However, the drive to attend U.S. colleges and universities is undeniable, he added. He knows from experience, as he was the first person in his family to leave Senegal to earn his degree in the U.S.

"We always admired and idolized U.S. institutions. We looked at them as the best to ever exist," Dieng said. "The issue was never whether it's a good place to study; the issues were not having the right funding or not being proficient in English."

Recent data shows that enthusiasm has continued throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mirka Martel, head of research at the Institute of International Education (IIE), co-authored the recent report "Prospects for International Students Amid Rebounding Global Mobility." She told BestColleges that what she found most interesting was how slight enrollment declines were among students from sub-Saharan Africa compared to steep drop offs from students in traditionally stable recruitment markets like China and India.

Overall, in the U.S., international student enrollment dropped approximately 15% during the 2020-21 academic year compared to the year prior, she said. But for students from sub-Saharan Africa, that drop was just 6%, according to the report. The number of students from North Africa dropped by 10%.

A Continent Poised for a Boom

Martel explained that there are three primary reasons that Africa, specifically sub-Saharan Africa, is poised for significant growth.

First, it's an area with an outsized population of traditionally aged college students. According to a 2019 IIE report, the median age in Nigeria was 19 at the time, with the much of the population primary education age or younger. From 2000-2019, Nigeria's population grew by 62%.

Second, there isn't enough university coverage to accommodate this booming population. With few universities in their home countries, Martel said many instead look internationally to earn a degree.

"The acceptance rate at some of their universities was on par with some of our Ivy League institutions," she said. That selectivity shows the gap between supply and demand.

Lastly, these African countries have seen a decade of economic growth. A larger middle class means more students can afford postsecondary education, either at home or abroad, she said.

Pent-Up Demand for U.S. Education

Dieng's interest in Africa goes beyond just the demographics.

He said it comes back to untapped potential. For decades, colleges and universities have focused on recruiting from places like Europe and China, which have yielded a reliable flow of international students.

Meanwhile, students from Africa have always wanted to come to the U.S., but barriers have kept them from applying and enrolling, he said. Mainly, it's an issue of financial aid.

Other countries have stepped up to cater to these students in recent years, making it imperative that U.S. schools increase their recruiting efforts. Unlikely destinations including the Netherlands, Ireland, and Saudi Arabia have attracted African students, Dieng said.

Lack of financial aid has meant families who want a U.S. education for their children have had to go to new lengths to ensure that happens. Dieng said he met one family during an event in Senegal recently who said they started saving for a U.S. education before their child — 8 at the time — was even born.

Most other students, however, have opted to study in France or Canada over recent decades. These countries made the higher education process easy and affordable, he said.

Dieng said colleges and universities need to improve in these areas.

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Where There's a Will, There's a Way

Before joining LSU, Dieng held a similar role at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). When he joined NKU, he quickly worked with the admissions office to create a better aid package, he said.

After just one recruitment effort across Africa, he said he enrolled 50 first-year international students from the continent for fall 2016, compared to just two the year before.

Many of those students are now working on earning advanced degrees, Dieng added, all thanks to the improved financial aid.

"If you don't have any funding, it's just not going to work," he said. "You may get one or two, but you're not going to get to a critical mass."

Dieng added that it's not just him increasing the focus on African students. He said a multi-school recruitment effort is scheduled for October that will include deans and provosts from nine Southeastern Conference schools.

The presence of high-ranking administrators — not just traditional recruiters — shows how serious these schools are taking this region, he said.

Martel of IIE added that the enrollment trends seen during the pandemic are encouraging signs for the continued growth of student enrollments from Africa. However, she stopped short of saying that just because this region reported the smallest drop in enrollments compared to other regions like Asia, doesn't mean it will grow faster as the world emerges from the pandemic.

"That will depend on a number of factors," she said. "But if the percentage decrease was lower than the international average, those places of origin may rebound quicker. That is certainly a possibility."