CAIRO—When considering where to get her undergraduate degree, Lana Al Kahala, who is Syrian, applied to universities across the Middle East and in Canada, the United States and Switzerland.
She said she was accepted at most of them, including Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, where she is now studying business administration.
“Carnegie Mellon was among my choices but I hadn’t really thought about it until I got accepted,” said Kahala. “Then, I started thinking more and more, ‘I can go to the States, but the States is far away, so why can’t I just get the same education somewhere close to my family?”
Al Kahala’s decision probably puts her in the minority of the highest-performing Arab students, but nevertheless reflects a growing trend: Students across the Middle East and North Africa are increasingly considering higher-education institutions within the region, data analyzed by the College Board indicates.
The College Board is a U.S.-based membership organization best known for administering the SAT tests that most American universities require for student admission. The Board analyzed where 24,000 students reporting home addresses in the Middle East and North Africa sent their scores between July 2013 and June 2014, to try to understand the student’s preferences and interests.
In North Africa and the Middle East, the College Board found that the majority of students were sending their SAT scores to institutions in their home countries, said Yoko Kono, assistant director of International Market Analytics at the College Board. That trend is primarily driven by students in Egypt and Lebanon. In those two countries, students often take the SAT tests instead of national exams.
But the College Board also found an increase in student mobility within the region. In particular, Arab students were attracted to study at institutions in Gulf countries. The shift toward regional mobility from longer journeys to Western educational destinations is also a global trend. “I would say the Middle East is the bellwether region for this,” said Clay Hensley, director of international strategy and outreach at the College Board. “It’s also happening in pan-Asia, within south and central Asia as well in East Asia and the Pacific… but to a lesser degree than in the Middle East.”
Educators and students say a number of factors are driving such regional movement, including an increase in the quality of regional education offered and the rise in the number of Western university branch campuses.
In Qatar, for example, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern and Georgetown are among a set of prestigious universities with campuses in the nation’s Education City, a compound on the outskirts of Doha that houses a slew of research and educational facilities.
At Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, almost 50 out of 250 students are from the Middle East and North Africa, not including students who might be from the region but enroll using second passports, said Joseph Hernandez, director of admissions. He said Egypt and Jordan are the most represented Middle Eastern nations.
Some of the students who are interested in Georgetown opt specifically for its Qatar campus because they are interested in the language, politics, economics or history of the region, Hernandez said. For many students it’s also a family decision, with students choosing an American university experience that’s also close to home. While students coming from other countries in the region still have to adjust to Qatar’s singular culture, “it is a closer adjustment, a closer fit in terms of family, religious or societal values, so that also attracts many students here,” Hernandez said.
Mohammed Salem, president of Wollongong University in Dubai, said cultural factors also play an important role in drawing Arab students to the United Arab Emirates, which is home to a growing number of higher education options.
The American University of Sharjah, Heriot-Watt University, Middlesex University and New York University all have campuses in the United Arab Emirates. The country has the highest number of branch campuses in the world, and Alpen Capital’s July 2014 Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) Education Industry report said the U.A.E. is the most developed education market in the region. Students from within the Middle East are increasingly turning to Dubai instead of the United Kingdom for quality education, the report said.
The mall-centered culture of Dubai is not appealing to everyone, but still many students are attracted to study in the emirates. “If you speak about the Arab world, in specific the U.A.E. is the dream country,” said Tamer Elewa, assistant professor in the Faculty of Business at The British University in Dubai. It offers a cosmopolitan experience, cultural similarities and opportunities for students seeking part-time jobs, he said. The Emirates “brings western content into the Middle Eastern context,” he added.
Inter-regional Arab student mobility isn’t new. Traditionally, though, it was mostly characterized by students attending American-style universities—such as those in Cairo and Beirut—that have long-established reputations, said Hensley at the College Board.
At the American University in Cairo, “we use an American-style of higher education, liberal arts, a system of tenured research faculty and so forth, and that has a lot of credibility around the globe,” said Ted Purinton, associate provost for academic administration and international programs there.
Other than Egyptian students, of the students enrolled at the AUC who were from the Arab world, the highest percentage during the 2011-2012 academic year were from Saudi Arabia, followed by the Emirates, then Kuwait. The number of students who reside in Saudi Arabia or live there is climbed by nearly 50 percent from eight years earlier, data provided by Purinton showed.
Student movement to some other countries, however, remains limited. Over the last five years only 35 degree-seeking students from Arab and Middle Eastern countries have attended Morocco’s public Al Akhawayn University, which like Cairo’s American university and the American University of Beirut offers American-style education.
If students from developing countries have one opportunity to go abroad, they don’t go to another developing country unless there’s a compelling reason, said Amy Fishburn, director of international programs at the university. “They will go to highly developed countries, and the belief is that they can learn more,” she said.
Perhaps underscoring that overall preference, the College Board found that the majority of international students —roughly 75 percent—sent their SAT scores to the U.S. during the period that the Board analyzed.
Yet some students see an advantage in sticking to the region.
“Being able to study in a country that is growing—where the economy, the society, is growing—gives insight into a lot of issues I don’t think I would have been aware of if I was in the States,” said Al Kahala, the Syrian student at Carnegie Mellon in Qatar.
“For example, I’m doing my research on Islamic finance for my honors thesis,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been aware of the importance of Islamic finance and how it’s a growing trend in the region if I wasn’t here.”