If you could have magically elevated yourself 50 feet above the Riyadh Exhibition Center during the International Exhibition for Higher Education expo that was sponsored by the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education this past week, you would have seen a disproportionate mass of young Saudis congregating around the EducationUSA booth as well as the 30 plus U.S. colleges and universities that participated in the expo. There was tremendous enthusiasm among the thousands of Saudi students for studying in the United States.
This past week, NAFSA Executive Director - Marlene Johnson and I (and many other NAFSA members representing their own institutions) were invited to attend the first International Exhibition for Higher Education (something they plan to convene annually). It was part conference grappling with important, emerging trends in higher education and part expo that showcased more than 375 universities and organizations supporting higher education from more than 33 countries.
For Saudi Arabia, the conference was itself one of several "firsts." Another was that young Saudi men and women attended the expo at the same time. To the untrained Western eye, seeing young Saudi men and women milling around the various university booths was very normal. To our Saudi colleagues however, it was a remarkable first. As one of the most religiously conservative Arab nations, Saudi Arabia traditionally maintains a separation between young men and women in public places. For this expo though, we understand King Abdullah declared that the event would be open to young men and women at the same time. The decision was widely seen as the latest effort by King Abdullah to continue the long-term transformation of Saudi Arabia into a post-oil "knowledge society."
The best way to understand the aspirations of a nation is to talk to its young people. And talk we did…the more than 500 young Saudis who stopped by the NAFSA booth during the expo expressed clear preferences for what and where they wanted to study and were eloquent about the important role they would play in Saudi Arabia's future. Here are some top notes from our many conversations:
First, there is clear preference for Saudi government-sanctioned courses of study (anything from dentistry and nursing to engineering and business). In fact, prospective students need to cross-check their preferred course and choice of institution against the list officially recognized by the Saudi government.
Second, there is relatively little understanding of diversity of U.S. higher education institutions ("just give me the name of the best university that offers MBA programs”).
Third, brand appears to heavily influence the choice of university. The highly recognizable U.S. institutions are at the top of most students' lists and with little knowledge of other choices for a high quality education. At the same time, many were walking through the EXPO guided by parents or teachers who were graduates of high quality public institutions in the heartland of the United States students are willing to be influenced to attend smaller universities that are able to provide individualized attention where an English language program is available prior to starting their degree program.
Fourth, word-of-mouth is a powerful influencer for many young Saudis. Invariably, the positive (or negative) experience of a family member or friend who may have previously studied in the United States is an important consideration in making a final choice of university. Often, the young Saudis are also comforted by knowing that there is a small or growing group of other Saudis at the same university they are considering (or a community of Saudis in the town).
Fifth, many young Saudis are able to attend U.S. colleges and universities on full scholarship (courtesy of the King Abdullah scholarship program). This generous scholarship program was recently extended for another five years.
Finally, the complicated entrance requirements and application process is a complete mystery to most young Saudis. From SAT's to GMAT's; from early admissions to conditional acceptance…all represent a confusing array of options and hurdles. Not surprisingly, in this environment there are ample opportunities for educational counselors who can help these young students and their parents understand the options and navigate their way through the application process.