Joburg Expat: Finishing Matric in South Africa - Then What?

February 8, 2016

Finishing Matric in South Africa - Then What?

If you've been a reader of this blog for some time, you'll know that I have written plenty of blog posts about education at South African schools. I've covered the debate of international vs local private school, I've talked about the value of foreign language instruction even in such "exotic" languages as Zulu and Afrikaans, languages admittedly not very "useful" in the Western world, and I've even delved into the virtues of a different approach to sex education.

What I haven't delved into, however, is higher education, i.e. going to college. South Africans call it varsity. If you have high school age children and are moving to South Africa from abroad, or already have been living there and your children are approaching the end of their school career, it is most likely a topic that causes quite a bit of anxiety in you.

If you're an American expat family in South Africa, should your high school age children plan
to apply to an American university or a South African one?

I know this because we had nearly arrived at that point. It was 2012, our oldest was halfway through 10th grade, and it was time to start looking at university options. To be clear, I didn't really feel like it was time quite yet, but following from afar I could tell that my American peers - meaning my friends and fellow mothers - were busy as beavers building their child's resume and diving headlong into what I had privately dubbed "The College Prep Rat Race." Any quick scan of Facebook reminded me daily that so-and-so's son was applying to summer school at Harvard and that another's daughter had taken the SAT for the third time and scored a 2,300. (I further explore this "college application from afar" dilemma in my recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Expat College Admissions: A Bit Like Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.)

We are now back in the United States, and our oldest is in his first year at the University of Tennessee, our new home state. All is well and he is happy there.

But three years ago, it wasn't at all clear that he would, in fact, attend an American university. As the time drew nearer to start taking the first SAT test, to start looking up universities online, to perhaps tour a campus or two, I felt like we needed to take some first steps regarding his university education. South Africans seem to be much less crazy with worry about where their offspring will end up - even though it's a fact that it is much harder to score one of the few university spots in a country that has much catching up to do to educate its entire populace - and so our local school, even though we were happy with it, wasn't much help.

Where would our son be better off going to university? South Africa or the United States?

If you graduate from a high school in the United States, the choice of where to apply for college
seems straightforward. Not so when you attend high school overseas.

I decided to get an expert opinion. To this effect I contacted Andrea van Niekerk with an organization calledCollege Goals based in California. Andrea got her undergraduate degree in her native South Africa and went to the United States for graduate school. I thought that she might be able to give some valuable advice based on her work as well as her own background.

I found her advice interesting: Where your kids are best off going to university depends on many factors, of course, but aside from anything else, Andrea's main criteria was what field of study the student is interested in. If it's very specific, South Africa would be a good choice, she felt. If he or she is leaning more towards liberal arts, the United States would probably be the better option.

Please find below our entire email exchange, which Andrea has kindly permitted me to share with you:

Joburg Expat: We have four kids, the oldest of them now in grade 10 at a South African private school. Our idea was always to have him attend a U.S. university, but the longer we live here, the less I’m sure. If we stay another two years and he finishes matric here, I don’t see why he might not want to attend a South African university instead. My plan is to have him start visiting some campuses in the U.S. this August when we are there, as well as start visiting some campuses here to get a better understanding of both scenarios. What do you think of a South African education vs a U.S. one? I must say, I’m quite happy to be away from the U.S and the stress of university admissions, but as you say also quite anxious whether we’re missing out on anything. We’re definitely planning to have him take the SAT, either this year or next (or both).

Andrea van Niekerk: Nice to hear from you. I think your questions are pretty typical for many American expats when they are living in countries like South Africa, where the tertiary education is good and the language accessible. Many do in fact choose exactly what you have suggested, sending kids to school in SA. South African universities are very good and those kids will be in good shape to enter American graduate schools after they are done. In that sense, they have the best of all possible worlds. UCT and Wits will inevitably be the best choices under these circumstances, not least because they rank the highest on the continent in world rankings - in fact Max Price, the VC of UCT was here at Stanford a couple of months ago as part of a fundraising tour, given that there are so many UCT alumni around. In short, I think this is a perfectly rational choice.

The question is not so much about the quality of the education, therefore, as the quality of the experience. I would stack my education in history from Wits against the very best in the world, but in the process I did not have the chance to study geology or neuroscience or anything else that i would have loved to explore. If your son studies in the US, of course, that is an option. I think the decision should therefore depend quite simply on whether he wishes for a liberal arts education, or not. if not - if he knows exactly what he wants to do and has little interest in exploring other fields - then SA is a great option: cheaper, shorter and very good. But if he wants the breadth of a liberal arts education and the very specific experience of a residential education, then he may want to think about the US.

Another consideration that I encounter amongst many international families with whom I work, is where the child may win admission. In other words, you may also want to ask, if your son is likely to get into UCT, for example, how that weighs against what his admission options may be in the US depending on his academics.

Finally, another question may also be about the family's plans in the coming years: if you are in SA to stay for several more years, then of course SA universities may be a good option. But if you may relocate to the US in the next year or three, then of course there seems little point to having a child stay behind.

Other people whose advice you may want to seek out, are the US Education Advisors in South Africa. They are themselves Americans who live in SA - Martha Bridgman in Cape Town, for example, has kids who study in SA, and I cannot remember where Susan Knowles in Durban had her kids attend university. You can see their biographies at http://www.usapglobal.org/sa/advisors.htm Hope this helps!

There are more resources to check out on our website at http://collegegoals.com/resources/index.html The blog may have some postings too that could be useful.

If you're Head Boy or Head Girl at a South African school, your chances of getting into a
prestigious South African university such as Wits or University of Cape Town are quite good.