Saudi Arabia: What University Should a Saudi Student Attend in the United States?

Usually when a Saudi student comes to the United States to attend University and particularly if on a governmental scholarship, one of the first programs in which a student is enrolled is an Intensive English Program (IEP).  This is generally a one year (sometimes two year) university program where the Saudi student will solely study English language in order to have the highest proficiency of English to maintain a four year academic program. That is not to say or imply that a Saudi student arrives in the United States without a speaking knowledge of English.  He or she will have a moderate degree of English but the IEP program gives foreign students an advantage in academic preparation for studying at American Universities.

However what University should a Saudi student attend?  Are some Universities more popular among Saudi students than others?  Naturally the field of interest and what one intends to major in has an impact on where to go.  Yet some universities or rather some specific geographical areas seem to be more popular among Saudi students than others.

For example, the Midwestern United States are a popular region for Saudi students and in particular the states of Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.  These states are also within and closest to the area which is covered by the Saudi Consulate in Houston which is busier than the Saudi Embassy or other Saudi Consulates in the United States in regards to overseeing needs and activities of Saudi students.  Other states which also draw Saudi students seem to be Ohio, Indiana and Michigan.  Not only do these states have good Universities but there are large Muslim communities around popular University towns such as Bloomington, Bowling Green (in Kentucky), Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, Dayton, Detroit and Dearborn.

Some Saudi students have gravitated in and around Washington, DC, preferring the proximity of America’s capital and near to the Saudi Embassy.  Virginia offers a wide selection of acclaimed universities as do the neighboring states of Maryland and West Virginia.

Last but not least, the Pacific Northwest has been a draw for Saudi students too.  Washington and Oregon have been popular states of choice for Saudi students.

Do you think foreign students are more attracted to attend University in a specific region or to gain acceptance in a specific University for its areas of specialization?


26 Responses

  1. I have also heard of some Saudi students preferring a certain area because of the weather. Some wish to see snow while others may prefer a state like Arizona because the weather will be more similar to what they are used to.

    I think a lot of it depends on what they wish to study, and more importantly, what schools in the US accept them. The US is most definitely the country of choice for studying abroad for many Saudis (based on my experiences, at least). One reason for this can also be that the it takes longer to get a particular degree than in other countries. Many (though not all) seem to prefer their time studying abroad because of the extra freedoms.

  2. I find it intriguing that Saudis should consider aspects other than academic merit while choosing their universities.

    Does it mean that a US degree is just a showpiece for them to get a good position when they are back in Saudi Arabia and any US degree would be just as good?

    I can only compare this trend with Indian students, with whom also US is a favourite destination.

    Their first concern is the prestige a university carries in the particular subject they want to study. Many of them aim for the Ivy League and if they can’t get into Ivy League, they go for the second-ranked or third-ranked universities where they can get a scholarship.

    But many Indian students prefer a higher ranked university on a lower scholarship than a lower-ranked university which will give them higher scholarship.

    There are Western countries which give full scholarship with living expenses and airfare covered to foreign students from Third World, but Indian students prefer an American degree from a high-ranked university even it means doing part-time jobs at odd hours and only getting partial scholarship.

    That’s because Indian students want to get a good degree so that they can rise in their career, even if it means getting partial scholarship.

    They don’t mind living in adverse climate or in alien social environment for this.

    Saudi students don’t have to worry about finding scholarship, still I find it strange that they should take into account non-academic aspects while choosing a university.

  3. I imagine it depends on the individual and where they are accepted to. I have heard many different reasons for choosing a particular university. There are many universities that have a good reputation, so this becomes just one factor. If, for example, someone gets accepted into multiple universities that all have good reputations for a particular program, then other factors such as learning environment, location, weather, etc. may become deciding factors.

    For me, though I am not Saudi, the quality of education and location is more important than the name a university carries. If the city isn’t multicultural, I will think long and hard before moving there.

  4. Yes, Strangeone,
    But the name of the university is linked to the quality of education in a particular discipline. For example, if one gets accepted into Ivy League or another prestigious university even on partial scholarship, it’s better than a full scholarship in a mediocre university, even if one has to live in adverse climate and alien surroundings in the Ivy League or another prestigious university in one’s discipline.

    At the end of it, it’s the qualification one obtains that matters and not whether one has managed to find a familiar, suitable climatic niche in the foreign land. Besides, the real challenge of surviving in a foreign land lies in making the “foreign” as “one’s own.” If we want to live only in familiar surroundings and are even ready to compromise on our quality of education for this, why do we want to study abroad in the first place?

    At least that’s how the Indian students think while choosing a university. What I was pointing out is why it is that despite having to look for a scholarship, Indian students are ready to make the sacrifices in personal and social areas for a quality education which will give them a cutting edge in their career and why it is that a Saudi student who doesn’t have to worry about finding a scholarship goes for non-academic reasons while choosing a university.

    The argument of family values doesn’t work here, because even Indian students go from a society having very deep family values.

    If one is leaving one’s country, family, friends and everything behind to go and study and live in a completely different environment, one should go with an understanding that social and climatic conditions in the foreign land are not going to be what one is used to. One should be prepared for this.

    Indian students are ready to face this kind of situation and adapt, but it appears that Saudi students are not ready to make these sacrifices. I think it is important to ask why this is so.

    it seems that this points towards the Saudi people’s attitude towards education and work environment.

  5. Indian=good and right
    Saudi=wrong and bad.

    Sooooo predictable Daisy.

  6. Daisy,
    I think it also depends on what the students and their families can afford. They may not be able to afford to be on a partial scholarship at an Ivy league university. I may be from the US, but I still had to rely on student loans for a large part of the tuitions costs during my time at university. It is not always possible to make enough working part-time especially when paying international tuition rates.

    Many of the Saudis I know are thrilled with the idea of living in the US and getting to experience a different culture.

    Obviously, it is important to go with a university that looks good on a CV particularly for a Master’s or Doctorate. However, when two universities look equally good on a CV, then why not base your decision on other factors? I know I did. 😉

  7. Also, it is not always legal for foreign students to work on a student VISA. Anyway, I looked it up- most Indian students don’t go to Ivy league schools- and do attend schools in warm climates. USC, ASU. Places like that.

  8. I know many students that go to school based on where they know people. They and their parents may feel more comfortable sending their children to a town or area where they already have family, or like you said close to the embassy or cultural mission. Many MANY of the Saudi students at my university came because they had family/friends who already went here. That way you have someone help you go through the process of application and moving and everything.

    Also it should be noted that the SACM limits the number of Saudi students allowed at each university. They want Saudis to get a diversity of experiences, so they do not ALLOW them all to go to Ivy Leagu/Upper Tier schools. For example, there are a few schools in Texas (at least one that I know of) that is currently maxed out. They wont allow any new Saudi students to go there until the next class graduates out.

    And you are right Sandy, I don’t think any of my Saudi friends are able to work on their student VISAs (unless there is some special qualification for an internship or something like that).

  9. Saudi students MUST join the American Universities that are accredited ONLY by the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education. These Universities that are accredited by the ministry of higher education are all high ranks in all fields. Any degree obtained from any other American university will not be accepted in Saudi and it will only be a waste of time and money. This is how Saudi students choose which university they can join. So, they have limited options.

  10. That’s true Medina. But it really isn’t that limited. They do offer a broad and extensive choice of places to attend. On of the reasons Saudi and India send so many students is because of the sheer volume of good-quality universities.

  11. For Saudi students which are sponsored and come to the US on a sponsored scholarship, whether by the government or employer, what is important is that the Saudi complete the program and obtain the degree…a degree from a US University. The emphasis is more on a US degree rather than a specific university.

  12. They do have to be on the “list” of approved schools Carol. Or they will not be considered legitimate in Saudi. You need to get some sort of “equivalency” certificate for the degree to be considered valid.

  13. CSLB, 5,000 strong last time they counted.

  14. Another big factor in choosing where to go are living expenses. Most students who will subsist on their scholarship stipend alone tend to stay away from expensive areas like New York and Boston. Florida is a very popular choice because of its moderate living expense and it doubles as a tourist haven, so they can easily find something to do in the week end. Indeed, Florida universities are quickly being maxed out and new Saudi students are being directed to other places. Here in California its getting pretty crowded as well. I see Saudi students everywhere.

  15. Carol,
    That’s what I was talking about – the emphasis in Saudi Arabia on just any US degree rather than the quality of expertise they obtain.

    I think this is one area Saudi government needs to look into. There is not much point in spending so much of money on educating such a large number of Saudi youth abroad, if they go all the way to the US to just get a US stamp on their CV.

    If the Saudi government is spending money on this programme, it should fine-tune it to match the skills of the US-trained Saudi professionals with the local needs and further, to ensure that the Saudi youth get the best value for the money that is being spent on their education. There is no point in just getting an American stamp on one’s CV.

  16. Strangeone et al,

    There are scholarships available for foreign students in the US and they can work for a limited number of hours even if enrolled as full-time students. Besides, most Indian students go for a graduate education abroad, when they can get many kinds of part-time academic jobs within the university itself, which covers partially for their expenses and tuition fees. Besides, many of them also get a tuition fee waiver if they have a high GRE score, good grades and good recommendations etc and if they maintain a good performance in the US. That’s how they manage in high-ranked universities.

    Most undergraduate degrees abroad are not funded by scholarships and hence, very few Indian students go for these.

    Without funding by the university in the form of scholarships, fee waiver and part-time jobs in the university, it is next to impossible for the Indian students to study there, even if they come from rich families in India.

    This is why most Indian students complete their undergraduate education here and go for the graduate level education to the US.

    Besides, Bachelor’s level technological education is good enough in India itself. We have some top-ranking engineering and technology institutions, whose students find jobs in US companies as soon as they complete their technological education in India. There is almost 100% employment-based emigration from these institutions.

    Same with subjects like genetic engineering, biotechnology and life sciences. We have some institutions from where there is almost 100% emigration based on research level fellowships.

    So Indian students of technology and some other sciences don’t need an undergraduate level US degree unless they want to go for advanced training after undergraduate level. In that case, they do a job for some time abroad, save money and go for advanced degree in the US with their own money.

    Students of other sciences and humanities go for graduate level education and especially for research level degrees.

  17. @ Saudi Jawa

    You’re right, they are EVERYWHERE in CA, it’s insane. Boston, NYC, and FL too.

  18. Daisy,

    Since this blog focuses on Saudi Arabia, I’d appreciate it if you would refrain from making multiple comparisons to India.

    Now back to topic, as stated by another commentor, it is not as if a Saudi student can close his or her eyes and point a finger on a map of the US in regards to which University or State one will go to. The University’s have to be on an approved list and of course in alignment with a student’s major and job interests. I apologize if my comment about the student obtaining a US degree was misleading in that aspect. I should say that it is an honor for a scholarship recipient to be selected to obtain a degree abroad which does enhance his or her accreditation’s.

  19. Daisy,
    I’d hate to disillusion you, but most of my classmates and fellow students I knew that were studying abroad from places such as India, Bangladesh, China, etc. were not attending university here (in the UK) on scholarship, but had parents who were able to cover the cost of tution and in many cases their families were more well-off than my family. In a few cases, the students themselves saved up for the costs of attending university here. There are only a limited number of scholarships available at a given time, especially when looking at graduate-level and above degree programs. At least, this has been my experience. The high costs are why many choose to only do their graduate-level (or higher) degrees abroad as you mentioned.

    Generally speaking, though, US degrees are looked upon highly because of the teaching methods (not just prestige) used in the US universities. At least, this is what I have heard from others. A degree from the UK is also looked at highly, too, though my Saudi friends seem to view US degrees as being worth more.

  20. I also wanted to comment on the “as long as it’s from America” phenomenon that you may have noticed; it’s not really the fault (or responsibility) of the embassy’s cultural attache. It’s the job market in Saudi. Anything labeled “Made in the USA” is considered the golden standard. Even if it’s from one of those for-profit online universities that aren’t on the MOHE approved list. Most of these students want their degrees to get better jobs, and if any degree they get will get them a good one, it’s only logical to take the easiest route there.

    However, I predict this may change in the coming years. When the inevitable surge of US educated job seekers hits the market, I expect hiring managers will become more and more savvy about picking the cream of the crop.

  21. It’s not just about getting a job. If you don’t have a proper degree, it can affect you if you try to get licenses for certain types of businesses. You will not be issued a license if you do not have an authorized degree. And they can be VERY sticky about it. If you really want to be versatile and give yourself a good chance, there is no point in getting an American degree off the list.

  22. I think selection of a place of study has more to do with gaining acceptance in a specific University for its areas of specialization. However, I know there are Universities that will offer incentives to get international students to enroll in their school. I live in Michigan and have met several Saudi families who have come here to study…… particularly At the University of Michigan for dentistry. I personally would go to the University of Detroit Mercy for Dentistry for several reasons however, I can see why U of M would be chosen because of its reputation as an excellent University. Pay and position is also based on where your degree comes from. As I speak to some of these families I hear of how friends would try to get into certain schools here however, grades in Saudia would prevent them from getting into more prestigious schools hence, having to pick a school with less vigorous criteria. Now, for those students that are sponsored by the Saudi Educational Mission they are limited due to what Universities they will accept and pay for ( see Medina’s comment). Also, they have to maintain a certain GPA, if I’m not mistaken, to be able to keep their sponsorship. A wonderful program the Saudi Ed. Mission offers, yet it’s no “walk in the park”. And, my hat is off to any international student who can fork out the “big bucks” to come here to study out of their own pocket.

    For those who are interested, I have heard through the talk of some of my patients that are Eastern Michigan University faculty that the school is offering some type of incentive or program to encourage international (particularly Saudi, if I’m remembering correctly) students to study there. I’ve also heard an increase in Saudi student enrollment there. May be worth looking into for those interested in studying in the US and particularly in Michigan.

  23. Does anyone know where I can access the MOHE list of approved universities?

  24. I know from attending UMSL (University of Missouri-St Louis) that schools in the midwest are particularly popular for our English language schools, many the best in the region, many the best in the country. There’s a reason why all the good media journalism schools are here; we are largely free of accented English. Clearest in the country. My own school is FULL of Saudi students every year; every few weeks to months new students come for our ELS program which is incredibly flexible and nearly guarantee acceptance to the adjacent University (UMSL) upon completion of said program. Not only for Saudi students, but our campus and city is also over-inundated with Korean, Chinese, and Indian students both ELS and standard university attendants. The cities are not incredibly populous and there are large suburban communities for homestay. All in all, according to my foreign student friends, its a great place to start learning!

  25. AFA Marketing Ltd was established in 2009 to specifically cater for students wishing to study in the UK, USA, Australia, Canada Singapore and Malaysia. AFA has established working relationships with a number of Tier 4 UK Universities, Language centres and Colleges who offer a variety of courses aimed at satisfying the needs and aspirations of students worldwide who appreciate that an International qualification is extremely beneficial for their future career prospects.

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    What is important is ensuring that students are guided through the process by experienced staff, who will help and advise them every step of the way from the start of the application process and ensuring that students have appropriate entry requirements for the required course that they wish to enrol. We also assist with Visa applications, accommodation, home stay and airport pick up services. This sets AFA apart as being the market leader in the UK, to assist the International students from anywhere within the world to get on to the best English Language, Undergraduate and Post Graduate study programmes within the UK, USA, Australia, Canada Singapore and Malaysia.

  26. Hi everyone,

    Does anyone know what percentage of Saudi graduate students also take Intensive English programs before they start their master’s?

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