The renowned poet Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Newly released data has revealed that qualified international students from the African continent are routinely being denied visas to study on US campuses at disproportionally higher rates than students from other areas of the world.
Now we have the facts to substantiate what higher education officials have often reported: that it is harder for students in certain countries to acquire visas than in other countries. We can and must do better to turn this trend around.
The Interview of a Lifetime report, jointly released on July 26 by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration and Shorelight, reveals that F-1 student visa denials have grown significantly in the past eight years, across three presidential administrations during both pre- and post-pandemic years.
From 2015 to 2022, visa denial rates for African countries remained the highest of any world region, demonstrating disparate outcomes for African international students seeking to study in the US.
To cite just some of the data: students from the African continent were denied visas at a rate of 44% in 2015, compared with a denial rate of 30% for students from Asia, and low rates of 7% and 8%, respectively, for students from South America and Europe.
By 2022, the denial rate for African students had risen to 54%, indicating that over half of all African student visas were denied – meaning that over 28,967 potential African students were rejected for an F-1 Visa. In Western Africa alone, the denial rates were as high as 71% in 2022.
These data show that despite the important work the Biden Administration has done to improve visa processing in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, we still have miles to go before we achieve reliable and equitable outcomes for international students seeking to study in the United States.
The report clearly shows that even though African students are now the fastest-growing international student population in the U.S., their overall numbers remain low and would have been far higher if so many qualified students had not been denied visas. During the most recent five-year period, for example, the average denial rate for African students was 52%. This means that as many as 92,051 potentially qualified African students applying to study in the U.S. were denied F-1 visas.
As discussed in my last column, it’s not just students who lose out when they don’t study in the US; our campuses and communities also miss out on the global perspectives needed by our own students to understand one of the fastest-changing and strategically important regions of the world.
“By 2030, young Africans are expected to constitute close to half of the world’s youth population”
By 2030, young Africans are expected to constitute close to half of the world’s youth population and by 2050 are expected to number 1.1 billion. African students will undoubtedly play significant roles in tomorrow’s economy.
Opening more opportunities for African students to study here will build positive relationships for future generations of Americans – and Africans – to collaborate on the global stage.
Through investments in international student recruitment and increased admissions among students from African countries, we can build the relationships needed to advance our shared values on food security, global health, digital transformation and infrastructure.
If we don’t address these missed opportunities now, then as the continent continues to grow, we will fall further behind our competitor countries in recruiting this talent from Africa. Today, China enrols nearly twice as many African students as the United States does.
“Today, China enrols nearly twice as many African students as the United States does”
The root causes of the inequity revealed in this latest report are complex and must be looked at carefully, but here are some next steps that higher education leaders and policymakers should consider to improve visa issuance for students from the African continent and international students overall:
- Institutions need to consider how they are advocating on behalf of prospective international students from Global South countries.
- All US visa policies, processing, and communications should signal to international students and scholars that they are welcome here.
- The US Department of State should increase training and guidance for improved adjudication, with tailored outreach to posts with high student visa refusal rates.
- Congress should modernise immigration law by expanding dual intent to include international students applying for F-1 visas attending US colleges and universities.
- The White House and relevant agencies should continue to articulate the importance of international students to our campuses, communities, and country.
The Biden Administration has made important improvements in visa processing; now we need to build on those improvements to ensure greater equity.
The inability to secure a visa should never stand in the way of qualified students being able to pursue a US educational degree. And the US should not stand in its own way of investing in a key aspect of tomorrow’s future.
About the author: This is the second article in a series from Jill Welch. Jill is an international education policy expert with more than two decades serving in senior policy leadership positions both inside and outside of government, including the Hill, the Institute of International Education, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, and the U.S. Institute of Peace. She currently serves as principal of leads Out of Many, One, a consulting practice supporting nonprofit organisations in achieving inclusive, progressive, and bold goals that advance the democratic values on which the United States was founded. She also serves as Senior Policy Advisor for the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.
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