Okey Umeano FCCA is head of risk management at Nigeria’s Securities and Exchange Commission

In early July the administration of US president Donald Trump stirred up a storm when it proposed to bar international students from studying in the US if all their classes at colleges and universities had moved online, which many had in the wake of Covid-19. The US is not alone in reassessing the immigration status of international students at this point, but its message was particularly blunt.

There was fierce pushback, with Harvard and MIT taking the issue to court with the backing of 59 other institutions threatened by the loss of income. In the event, the proposal was scrapped, but the incident raises interesting points, both for countries whose citizens seek an education abroad and for those whose institutions offer such opportunity.

Each year tens of thousands of students from sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) travel to the US to study, a cohort that is growing annually. According to the Institute of International Education, in the 2018–19 academic year 40,290 students from SSA enrolled at US colleges and universities, making up 3.7% of all international students in tertiary education institutions in the US. Nigeria leads this migration with 13,423 students, followed by Ghana (3,661) and Kenya (3,451).

A better life

Education has long been a way for Africans and other nationalities to move to the US in pursuit of a better life – a good proportion of graduates do not return home after their studies. They go on to get jobs and build their lives in the US. This has led to a substantial educated SSA demographic in the US, working in good white-collar jobs. And of course, these people send much needed remittances back to Africa, to take care of relatives back home.

Another benefit of the student migration for Africa is that many eventually come back to the continent. That may happen many years after they originally left to study, but when they return it is with experience, skills, ideas and capital to begin new ventures in Africa. Some build businesses in their home country as something to come back to, others as international investments. This homebound direct investment represents a considerable transfer of knowledge and capital to the continent and contributes to job creation and poverty reduction. Africa needs these contributions.

It is not only the students who benefit. Quite apart from the fees they pay, once these students graduate many contribute to the US economy

Benefits for both sides

For many in Africa, and for others elsewhere in the world eager to educate themselves, the US has long been a land of promise, welcoming international students with benevolence. However, it is not only the students who benefit. Quite apart from the fees they pay, once these students graduate many contribute to the US economy and add to the country’s diversity – which is one of its strengths.

International students of all nationalities bring diversity and zest to the US student population. They help make US colleges and universities what they are. Many of these students are attracted by the opportunity to live in the US. If that option were to disappear, the world would be poorer for it.