General Background

Kenya is a country of 45 million with a literacy rate of 85%, among the highest in Africa. Education is nominally compulsory and free for primary school (eight years). Secondary school (four years) costs upwards of $300 a year (per capita GDP is $1,360), and slightly more than half the appropriate age cohort is enrolled. The best-established secondary schools are boarding schools, because at the time they were founded, high schools were few and far between and transportation was limited. Government-supported boarding schools now cost $500 or more per year, private schools roughly double that.

In spite of these costs, even the poorest families commonly struggle to educate their most promising children, often borrowing heavily and selling precious assets like land or cattle to pay the fees of the best schools for which their children qualify. Qualification is based on the national primary school final exam (KCPE). Top scorers nationwide are eligible for places in highly selective “national” government-supported secondary schools or in comparable private schools. The next highest scorers qualify for so-called “county” schools, and the rest—the vast majority—are consigned to lowly “district” schools, which may be all the students’ families can afford, no matter how well the students scored on the KCPE. A number of KenSAP students have wound up at district schools under just these circumstances.

Not surprisingly, in view of this hierarchical structure, most top scorers on the national secondary school exam (KCSE) come from national or county schools. The KCSE is administered each October to more than 500,000 Form Four students (high school seniors) throughout the country. Students take exams in eight subjects, most of which they have studied for four years. Their aggregate mark is based on seven subjects: English, Math, Kiswahili, two sciences and two additional subjects. About ½ of 1% of the students who take the KCSE score an aggregate or “mean grade” of “A plain” – the baseline qualification for all KenSAP applicants – while about 30% score C+ or better, which qualifies them for places in state-certified colleges or universities. Those who qualify and need government support to meet their expenses (about 95%) generally have to wait at least ten months after taking the KCSE before enrolling. It is during this gap period that KenSAP conducts its residential sessions.

Kenyan Anomalies

Several unusual features of the Kenyan system – such as the long gap between high school and university – may affect the way KenSAP students compare with rival international admission candidates. For one thing, the absence of British-style A-level university preparation, which was abolished in Kenya’s educational restructuring in 1989, means that Kenyans face the SAT with two fewer years of secondary education than most Commonwealth students. This especially hurts the Kenyans in the Reading/Writing section of the test, where two more years of secondary instruction in English might compensate for deficiencies in the current Kenyan curriculum, which neglects humanities in favor of math and science. (The medium of instruction in all subjects is English, but there are practically no first-language English teachers in the entire country.)

In addition, Kenyan candidates may be handicapped by the very straightforwardness of the country’s university admissions. The KCSE is all-important; nothing else counts. Thus, the resume building that is second nature to high school students in America and elsewhere is utterly unknown in Kenya. If a Kenyan student pursues an extra-curricular interest, it is a genuine interest, unalloyed by college admission considerations. But for that reason, the student’s list of activities may seem unusually short. Moreover, since recommendations are irrelevant for Kenyan university admission, teachers are accustomed to writing no more than a perfunctory sentence or two, along the lines of, “Good student, well behaved.” And teachers’ evaluations often seem oddly skewed by a misplaced concern about overpraising. A student who breaks the school record on the KCSE, for example, might be rated “Good” or “Very good.”

For all this, American college admissions officers have generally been able to see beyond the apparent shortcomings in KenSAP applicants’ files; in the past ten years, every one of the program’s 114 candidates has been admitted with full aid to highly selective colleges. And so far, notwithstanding a few missteps, the matriculated students have shown themselves well able to make the vast leap from rural Kenya to the most competitive American colleges.