Why Sub-Saharan African Immigrants to America Are the Most Educated - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

They've cracked the code to higher education success in America.

Growing up, Thomas Adetomiwa wasn’t too keen on his dad’s origin story of how he got to the U.S. from Nigeria. He’d often tell Adetomiwa how his acceptance into the University of Houston meant that he’d be the first person in their family to come to America, and how he had to simultaneously work four jobs while sending money back home to his grandmother and brothers. 

“It’s funny to think about it now because I would think it was annoying,” Adetomiwa recalls. Yet his father’s perseverance has passed on to him. Adetomiwa persevered, despite three rejection letters from Southern Methodist University, to eventually earn a Master’s in science and management and then an MBA from SMU. The 27-year-old now works at IBM. His family’s story may be remarkable but it’s not unique.

In fact, according to data collated by the Migration Policy Institute from the Census Bureau and American Community Surveys:

40 percent of immigrants to the U.S. from sub-Saharan Africa hold at least a bachelor’s degree

That’s compared to 31 percent for the country’s overall foreign-born population and 32 percent for those born in the U.S. Nigerians and South Africans are the most highly educated, with 61 percent and 58 percent, respectively, holding at least an undergraduate degree. “Our families had to finesse their ways into this land and find ways of making money,” says Adetomiwa. “We’ve seen what our parents did just to get us inside the house. So it was our duty to show that their efforts and stress aren’t taken for granted.”

For sure, the comparison between immigrants and native-born Americans in education isn’t entirely fair, says Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute and co-author of the report. Many foreign immigrants leave their country for the U.S. already possessing skills and an education base that give them an academic edge in their new home.

But cultural factors play a role as well, according to research by Serah Shani, an assistant professor of anthropology at Westmont College who studies sub-Saharan African success in New York. She says that Ghanaians, for instance, have a sense of community that often insulates them from distractions, and keeps them busy in churches and classrooms. “Americans might think that I live in public houses or [am] lower income, but I’m comparing myself to living in a poor neighborhood in Africa,” she says, speaking of the immigrant mindset. 

Hard work and an eye for opportunity aren’t qualities specific to any single community. But when it comes to education, sub-Saharan Africans have cracked the code to success.

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