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The Challenges of Recruiting Africans for Graduate Programs

The following is a guest post by John D. Holm, the former director of the Office of International Education and Partnerships at the University of Botswana and director of international programs at Cleveland State University.
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Universities in the United States appear eager to enroll more Africans in their graduate programs. Last month a group of administrators from American institutions, including Ohio University and University of Cincinnati, visited Botswana to explore partnerships, which could bring students from the sub-Saharan country to their campuses. In general, universities see African students as a way to diversify their classrooms and, at the same time, help fix Africa’s massive shortage of locals with graduate degrees.

While most Africans are too financially strapped to study abroad, a number of African economies are starting to take off. As a result, an increasing number of families in countries such as Botswana, the Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and South Africa can afford an education in the United States, without the need of scholarships.

However, according to the latest figures from the Council of Graduate Schools, applications to American graduate programs from African students for the fall of 2012 declined 5 percent. While Africans consider an American education one of the best in the world, there are several obstacles that keep them from applying.

In particular, two policies are part of the problem–using GRE scores for admission evaluation and that American institutions require much more classroom time than universities elsewhere. Thus, Africans heading to graduate school often see Australia, Britain, Canada, and France as more attractive.

As director of international education for four years at the University of Botswana, I was keenly aware of these two concerns. The university paid for staff development fellows to go overseas for their advanced degrees, but they frequently avoided going to America–and that trend continues today.

One barrier is the mandatory use of Graduate Record Exam for admission evaluation. Most of the rest of the world evaluates students for graduate school on their undergraduate academic record (usually transcripts). The GRE by contrast is a one-time test of a student’s overall verbal, mathematical, and analytical reasoning. Africans perceive quite rightly that they will need considerable coaching and study to do well on this type of exam since it is foreign to their previous academic experiences. Those who already have a good record, not surprisingly, are reluctant to take on the extra effort required to do well on the GRE.

Further compounding the problem is that in parts of Africa the math section of the GRE is intimidating. Some African cultures do not value the mathematical thinking found on the test (i.e. algebra and geometry) and many school systems have not rigorously countered this problem. As a result, a considerable number of Africans score low on the math section.

A second deterrent to African interest in American graduate programs is that our degrees take longer to complete than ones in Europe and elsewhere. Many more classes are required, and then students must pass comprehensive exams, some sections of which may have to be retaken in case of failure. Thus, a master’s degree with thesis can end up being two years rather than the one year as is the case in the rest of the world. The doctorate can be even longer.

American graduate schools wanting to recruit Africans need to confront both of these concerns. For one, they should find alternative assessments to the GRE. Two options are likely to be helpful, especially in combination. One is to require that applicants who have not taken the GRE submit a scholarly paper which demonstrates verbal and analytical skills and, where appropriate, mathematical abilities. The applicant’s instructor would need to certify that the paper was his or her work.

The other option is for a university to encourage their faculty members doing research or teaching in Africa to be on the lookout for potential graduate students. Faculty members can solicit recommendations from their African colleagues, enlist potential African graduate students on research projects, and explore the possibility that a local university’s staff development fellows might have an interest in furthering their education in the United States. In short, American universities need to become proactive in recruiting African students.

American universities must also confront the length of time required for graduate degrees. Probably the most significant step would be to allow African graduate students to return to their home countries for thesis research and writing after finishing their comprehensive exams. With Skype and e-mail now widely available in African countries, adequate communication with thesis advisers is feasible—and with some special training before they return home, doable. Such an approach would also insure that African graduate students are working on problems relevant to their countries.

African universities themselves could advertise their graduates by publishing a list of a small number who are the best prepared for advanced work. They could send these lists of potential graduate students to institutions that have a special interest in recruiting Africans.

Such efforts, of course, will not reduce all the barriers facing Africans who want to earn an American degree. But a better understanding by American university officials of the two obstacles discussed here can help increase the number of Africans studying on their campuses.

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