Looking for university admission abroad? Take caution

Mismatched expectations and financial losses haunt many applicants

In Summary

• Unesco data shows that Kenya has about 15,000 students studying abroad

• Many potential students looking for overseas education are clueless on what it entails

A university student during graduation
A university student during graduation

Lots of Kenyans aspire to get higher education. A university degree or college diploma opens the way to well-paying jobs that will improve the individual's life and that of his or her wider family.

Qualifications from foreign universities, especially those in the Global North, are highly sought after. With such qualifications, the individual can get jobs practically anywhere in the world. However, there exists a huge information asymmetry because most Kenyans do not know the admission processes for joining prestigious foreign universities.

Before you start scratching your head as to the meaning of information asymmetry, it refers to a situation where one party to a transaction has more knowledge than his or her counterpart. The individual with less information is, therefore, at a disadvantage and likely to make decisions that will be very costly in the long term.

According to the online financial dictionary Investopedia, information asymmetry can result in the problem of "adverse selection". In this case, the individual possessing little information in a transaction may buy a product or service that could be defective, harmful or overpriced.

This is the situation where potential students looking for overseas education have almost no information about what they are getting into, compared to the entities that are marketing university admissions. The consequence of this type of information asymmetry is mismatched expectations and financial losses for those looking to study abroad. Sadly, information asymmetry in university admissions is a worldwide problem.

Unesco data shows Kenya has about 15,000 students studying abroad. The number is expected to grow as Kenyans seek career opportunities beyond the country's borders. The British Council lists the most popular destinations for Kenyan students as the United Kingdom, USA and Australia. Also popular are Canada, China, Germany, South Africa and South Korea.

The good news is that there are red flags to help you avoid falling prey to illegitimate university admission services.

1. Unsolicited admissions: Universities have an admission process that's initiated by prospective students often through an online portal. No credible university will offer admission to a student who did not apply for it. Neither are scholarships offered through WhatsApp messages or emails to those who did not apply. Quite often, unsolicited admissions are followed by requests for "processing fees" or some other demand for money.

2. Easy scholarships: According to FinAid, a student advisory website, any organisation asking for money upfront in exchange for student scholarships is probably not genuine. Some scammers collect so much money in so-called application fees that they can afford to pay out a few scholarships to maintain the illusion of legitimacy. "Your odds of winning a scholarship from such scams are less than your chances of striking it rich in the lottery," FinAid says.

The Scholarship System, a student advisory resource, says legitimate scholarships will require applicants to write essays or at least a few short-answer responses. Genuine scholarships will also require supporting documents, such as transcripts and recommendation letters. They will have minimum entry qualifications and are awarded once or twice a year.

3. Unofficial communication channels: Credible universities have official email addresses and do not communicate with applicants through text messages. Some common traits of suspicious emails include prompts to click on a link, submit personal information, download an attachment or send money. Often, the communication will have undertones of urgency, such as your application being terminated if you don't pay as soon as possible. Do not send money directly to anyone claiming to represent a university.

4. High-pressure seminars: The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) advises against paying any money at publicity events called to promote admissions into foreign universities. These events are usually high-pressure sales pitches, where they tell you to pay immediately or risk losing out on the "opportunity". Investigate the organisation hosting the event and explore other options before you pay anything. "Don't do business with anyone reluctant to answer questions or give details," the FTC says.

5. Guaranteed scholarships! Study International, an independent resource on the education sector, cautions against organisations or companies that offer guaranteed scholarships if you apply with them. If an offer is too good to be true, it usually is a scam. Genuine organisations do not give out scholarships to everybody who applies. "Legitimate services will not guarantee the opportunity of receiving a scholarship," Study International advises.

6. Personal information: Kansas State University warns against unusual requests for personal information. Be suspicious of applications that request for bank account or credit card numbers. Such details, in addition to other identifying information about you, can be used to steal from your bank account. Do not give personal financial details over the phone or online to anyone without getting information about their services in writing first.

In summary, anyone interested in pursuing further studies should do their own research before committing money. Most information about admissions and scholarships is available for free, whether from your preferred school or on the Internet. If you choose to pay for help with university admissions, be sure you understand what you are paying for.

There's a further possibility of joining an unrecognised university. Whether attending actual classes or studying online, make sure the foreign academic institution you have selected is recognised in Kenya.

A worrying concern is that of diploma mills. They are bogus academic institutions selling degrees, diplomas and certificates to anyone who wants to graduate without attending classes. In essence, diploma mills exist to help academic cheaters get fake qualifications.

Diploma mills can be found in both developed and developing countries but, as some Kenyans are finding out, a degree that is not recognised is nothing more than an expensive piece of tissue paper.

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