• Angad Chowdhry

How can big data help students transition from higher education to work?

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

Applying to colleges and jobs is a daunting process for students. From gathering information to navigating long forms. The Internet has opened up a world of possibilities and support for students, especially those looking to go abroad for higher education or work.

As of 2017, there are 9 million post secondary students in sub-Saharan Africa. As educational attainment grows, so too, will the qualified numbers of young people in Africa seeking higher education abroad and at home. By 2027, sub-Saharan Africa will move from 3% of the world’s population in 2007 to 7% in 2027. It is predicted that by 2050, Africa will be home to ⅓ of the world's youth population.

Education Sub-Saharan Africa (ESSA) is a non-profit organization that aims to improve university and college education in Sub-Saharan Africa using data and evidence. Since students use the internet to search for information and opportunities, ESSA partnered with Quilt.AI to use digital insights to find out more about their journeys.

ESSA and Quilt.AI’s research analyzed the digital ecosystems of students in sub-Saharan Africa to answer the following questions - what are enablers and barriers to post secondary education, scholarships, and job applications? What are students saying about these areas? Findings are crucial to informing organizations, like ESSA, on their communication cues to help students access post secondary education and transition successfully from university or college into work.

A Student’s Journey

Quilt.AI and ESSA analyzed 5000 unique keywords and up to 300,000 unique searches on topics of: post secondary education, scholarships and job application. Data was extracted at a city-level from four countries: Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and Zambia.

We followed student journey’s online and used digital insights to complement the barriers and enablers that students faced along the way. We have 3 main takeaways.

1. Social media is a hub for education and employment-seeking

We examined Facebook, Instagram and Twitter on issues relevant to students. In countries, like Kenya and Ghana, one of the main barriers to university and college education is being unable to afford the fees. Those who wish to continue to college have to go through the complicated process of applying for scholarships to fund their education - difficult to obtain even when they meet the cut off mark for the university or college of their choice.

We found that social media is a hub for education related resources:

  • Students who have limited finances are resorting to social media to find “donors” that are willing to fund their school fees and provide scholarships. In Uganda, 25% of posts on Facebook are related to students seeking ‘donors’. In Kenya and Ghana, about 30% of posts on Instagram were organizations seeking donations for students’ scholarships.

  • Students turn to social media for information on scholarship applications. They use it to gather information on local and global college/university fairs online along with potential scholarship opportunities. Compared to other countries, universities in Zambia use Facebook and Twitter to actively advertise themselves for student recruitment through their range of courses and scholarships. In Ghana and Uganda, posts by education institutes offering scholarship and admission to overseas universities made up 40% and 65% of all posts, respectively.

Across all countries, there was a high volume of discourse around upskilling opportunities to help students transition to the workforce:

  • Graduates are utilizing social media platforms such as Twitter to “advertise” themselves when searching for jobs, by uploading their academic results and graduation certificate in their posts. Many simply treat the posts as a “cover letter” and urge other users to retweet and share their posts to increase exposure. These posts often have a high number of likes, retweets and comments, with many similar graduates offering help to each other. In Kenya and Ghana, 70% and 60% of posts on Facebook, respectively, are individuals searching for jobs.

  • Employers also use social media platforms to search for applicants, by stating details of the jobs and internships such as salary, scope and requirements and circulating them online. These posts usually have high traction, with many tagging “suitable candidates” in the comments section. Students also help advertise internship opportunities through their own experiences. Some students take to Facebook and Twitter to share or even brag about their internship experiences and achievements. The high level engagements in these posts indicates other students’ aspirations towards securing a better job in the future.

  • Universities and colleges that prepare students for the workforce use social media to target and reach audiences at scale. They use Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to advertise their services such as English courses to work abroad, digital skills training and CV preparation. In Zambia, institutes mainly use Facebook with 40% of posts from them. In Uganda, institutes used Twitter, with 35% of posts about upskilling services they offer.

2. There is high interest in knowledge about education and work but intent and awareness varies

Search behavior across the four countries show that there is still high interest in going abroad for education and work.

Interestingly, in Kenya, Uganda and Ghana, knowledge searches have the highest average monthly search volume compared to awareness and intent searches. However, the rate of searches in each category varies across country:

  • In Kenya, knowledge searches rose by 16%, while awareness and intent searches dropped by 1% and 6% respectively. Knowledge related searches include keywords such as “hotel management courses”, “university grading system” and “fulbright scholarship programmes” show higher intent in obtaining information and making decisions on university choices.

  • In Ghana, there is a fall in interest across all phases. Awareness, knowledge and intent searches showed a drop of 18%, 9% and 26% in volume respectively. Similarly, in Uganda, awareness, knowledge and intent searches dropped by 18%, 9% and 26% in volume respectively.

  • In Zambia, Knowledge searches show a drop of 49%, while awareness and intent searches show a rise of 13% and 80% respectively. Intent searches show the highest increase in interest, attributed to keywords such as “scholarship application letter” (80%) and “scholarship recommendation letter” (45%), showing the students’ desire to further their studies with scholarships.

In terms of interest in jobs, knowledge searches decreased across all countries, while awareness and intent varied:

  • In Kenya, awareness searches dropped by 9% in volume, while knowledge searches showed a 7% drop in searches. Intent searches had a rise of 25% in volume, showing that more people are seeking information and looking at job applications.

  • In Ghana, searches across all phases experienced a fall in volume, with knowledge showing a 2% drop, awareness and intent showing a 7% drop.

  • In Uganda, intent searches show a rise of 13% while awareness and knowledge searches showed a drop of 5% and 8% respectively. Keywords that show the highest growth include “job application letter sample pdf” (267%) and “job interview questions and answers” (83%), indicating people’s desire to better prepare for job application and interviews.

  • In Zambia, awareness searches show a drop of 9% while knowledge and intent searches show a rise of 7%. Intent searches keywords that show the highest growth includes “job application letter sample pdf” (305%) and “job interview questions and answers” (86%).

3. Institutes should use digital marketing tools to leverage social media and student reach

To maximize effectiveness, students need to be exposed to easily accessible information online. Organizations and institutes should focus on disseminating information on social media platforms most commonly used by students to ensure messaging reaches students easily and extensively.

  • Highlight the enablers in each stage of the journey through search redirection- Legitimate information on scholarships affordability and re-skilling is not readily available online. Institutes can redirect search traffic on these topics through their social media handles and partnerships with scholarship providers.

  • Push ads online based on the students’ interests. Organizations can understand students’ interests such as entertainment groups or meme pages they visit often. Then messaging should be tailored to suit students’ top interests in each country to increase its effectiveness.

  • Using search behavior to measure impact - Universities, colleges and employers can target growing interests in the “knowledge” and “intent” phases as these signal higher order intents from students seeking education and job opportunities (eg. aggressively pushing out education related information in Ghana and Zambia and job related information in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia).

The pandemic has affected students’ lives, from attending college to finding jobs in struggling economies. As they navigate future uncertainties, organizations, like ESSA, play a critical role in helping them navigate opportunities. The Internet is a powerful platform to reach students as they use it as a space to seek information and resources. Using digital insights and marketing tools can amplify organizations’ messages and reach students in need.

Write to us at [email protected] to learn more about our work.