Sustaining the Momentum in Recruiting Indian Students

India currently sends more students to study in the United States than any other country. In academic year 2006-07 (the last year for which figures are currently available), 83,833 Indian students were enrolled at U.S. institutions of higher education, an increase of 7,330 students compared to the year prior (IIE Open Doors [1], 2007), representing a robust 9 percent increase. Another way of looking at this growth is that India added an Indonesia in one year in terms of international student enrollments; the total number of students enrolled from Indonesia in 2006-07 was 7,338. Moreover, the net increase in the number of students from the next ten top-sending countries was 6,268, a figure that is still less than the growth in the number of students from India alone.

Recent data from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and the U.S. Council of Graduate Schools [2] (CGS) suggests that growth will continue this year, even if at a slower rate than in recent years. The Embassy numbers, cited by The Chronicle of Higher Education [3] in July, show that student-visa issuances were up 4.5 percent for the months from October to June compared with the same period last year, while the CGS figures [4] show that growth in graduate applications and offers of admissions were both at two percent; a significant slowdown from last year when the rate of growth was 12 and 17 percent respectively. This data helps contextualize the size and contribution of India to the international student body in the United States, and emphasizes how important and effective an India-recruitment strategy should be for international admissions offices.

Indian Education, a  Brief Background

With a population of more than 1 billion people, India is not only a populous country but it is also rich in diversity. For example, in addition to English and Hindi, there are more than 20 regional languages spoken across the country. The Indian system of higher education mirrors the size and diversity of the country. With more than 340 universities and 17,500 colleges, India boasts the world’s largest number of higher-education institutions. Furthermore, there is a great deal of diversity among those institutions; however, while diversity can generally be considered a positive in higher education, Indian institutional diversity often represents inconsistency and incoherence in government policy coupled with variations in quality. This institutional diversity is detrimental to the country and also poses challenges for international admissions officers.

One of the biggest challenges is the Indian three-year undergraduate degree, offered by a majority of universities, which raises issues of equivalency for U.S. graduate admissions offices when assessing the credentials of Indian applicants in comparison to standard U.S four-year undergraduate degrees. According to the findings of a 2006 survey by the Council of Graduate Schools, “International Graduate Admissions, Phase III: Admissions and Enrollment [5],” 45 percent of U.S. admissions officers who completed the survey reported that they accept three-year degrees from countries outside Europe for graduate admissions (versus 56 percent for European three-year degrees); 55 percent reported that they do not. While admissions decisions in the United States are typically made on an institution-by-institution basis, and often case-by-case, the figures from the CGS survey reveal that a majority of U.S. graduate schools do not consider Indian undergraduate degrees as adequately preparing students for U.S. graduate studies. Aside from the obvious difference in length of studies, many admissions officers express concern that three-year degrees afford students little opportunity to take courses in the liberal arts and are more focused on the students’ respective disciplines.

Among other challenges faced by U.S. admissions officers when evaluating credentials from the Indian education system, the issue of quality is perhaps paramount. With the rapid expansion of the Indian education system in recent years, there is major concern that while access has increased, there has been less attention paid to improving quality standards. This is especially the case at teaching colleges around the country. While these institutions may have received a license and accreditation from the accrediting bodies of either the All India Council for Technical Education or the University Grants Commission, it is unclear for many what exactly that recognition constitutes. Many observers suspect there is a high level of corruption in the process and are suspicious of the fact that the accrediting agencies are under the purview of government-controlled regulatory bodies.

The focus of the remainder of this article is to present the characteristics of the Indian higher-education market and to propose a holistic recruitment strategy. The Indian student market for U.S. institutions of higher education is discussed at three primary levels — sociocultural, technological, and economic.


When considering the sociocultural aspects of the Indian market, one should try to understand the motivations, choices, and barriers facing prospective Indian students. To understand these sociocultural factors, it is worth investigating why the United Kingdom and Australia, the main competitors to the U.S. in international-education exports, lag significantly in recruiting Indian students. The biggest contributing factor is the role of ‘country image’ in the decision-making process of prospective Indian students. Indian society in general perceives U.S. higher education as one of high quality and prestige. This translates into respect and recognition not only in society but also, and perhaps more significantly, in prospects for professional advancement. The primary motivation for internationally mobile Indian students is career growth and they see U.S. education as a high-quality destination for their global careers. In contrast, there is concern among Australian universities that their image is weakening among Indian students and that it is increasingly perceived as a low-cost rather than a high-quality destination (Slattery, 2008).


Most Indian students considering an overseas education are quite comfortable with technology and the use of the Internet. Although Internet penetration in India is just 5 percent of the total population, in absolute numbers this is more than the total Internet user-base in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, engineering is a popular and aspirational undergraduate degree for Indians, who later on consider graduate degrees in engineering or management. Another enabling factor for Internet usage is the relative English-language fluency of urban Indians. According to Alexa, a service that tallies website usage, yahoo.com and google.com are the most visited websites for Indians as compared to Hindi or regional language websites. This combination of English fluency and Internet-savviness among college-going urban Indians reveals how important an effective and coherent web presence and outreach program is for institutions and admissions officers seeking to recruit from the sub-continent.


With the Indian economy growing at more than 8 percent annually, jobs are being created in India and the middle class is growing. Inevitably, this is leading to an increased level of prosperity, thereby increasing the affordability of an expensive overseas education, and dramatically increasing the career aspirations of a growing number of Indians. A central aspect of India’s economic rise has been the growth of the information technology (IT) industry which has provided international and domestic career opportunities for hundreds of thousands of software engineers. However, the burnout rate among IT professionals is high, which has resulted in many IT professionals seeking alternate career paths, or career advancement opportunities after four or five years. Those seeking to change or advance career paths typically do so through graduate education, often internationally. This is evidenced in the U.S. context by the fact that more than 70 percent of Indian students in the United States are enrolled at the graduate level (IIE Open Doors 2007).

Implications for Recruiters

Considering the points raised above, how can U.S. institutions of higher education adapt their recruitment strategies to sustain the momentum of not only increasing the quantity of Indian applicants but also of improving their quality?

One of the main responsibilities of the international student recruiter is to communicate with prospective students and convert them into applicants. The emphasis here is on effective communication processes that may induce and help prospective students to apply. There are three primary principles to consider: Who is the receiver? What is the message? What is the media? The three market characteristics discussed earlier can be integrated with these communication principles to create an effective recruitment strategy (see Figure 1).

From a socio-cultural perspective, the United States is still perceived as a destination for high-quality education, thus the message to the prospective student should emphasize the benefits of being in America. For example, after graduation, career prospects are much stronger in the U.S. as compared to the U.K. or Australia, driven by the sheer size of the economy. Also, the opportunities for partial or full payment of tuition and living expenses through scholarships and assistantships are much more abundant in the United States, making a U.S. education potentially more affordable and appealing to a significantly larger segment of the prospective applicant pool. Here, recruiters should emphasize the resources and opportunities available on the campus, in addition to the potential long-term return on investment opportunities of a U.S. education. EducationUSA [6] advising centers are also effective and credible channels for counseling students, organizing information sessions and disseminating scholarship information.


As highlighted earlier, most Indian students who are considering an overseas university education are technologically sophisticated. Concerns of Internet access should not deter recruiters from leveraging the Internet as an integral channel of communication. The World Wide Web not only has the advantage of reach, immediacy and interactivity, but most importantly the ability to provide high returns on investment. It is important to note that Internet communication strategies require a consistent, concerted and comprehensive effort for maximum returns. Internet marketing should not be limited to e-mail campaigns, rather it should be designed and implemented as an integrated Web strategy including web-logs, multimedia, chat sessions and discussion boards. Social networking websites like orkut.com [8] are very popular among Indians in the target age group and hence multiple platforms may be created for the prospective students to connect with admissions professionals, alumni, current students, and even faculty.

The transformation of the Indian economy has resulted in the emergence of global business models that provide international travel opportunities for an increasing number of India-based employees. For example, IT companies use global delivery models that employ a mix of software professionals working in India with teams working at client sites in international locations. Recruiters need to tap into this globally mobile segment by developing strategic alliances with the Indian corporate world. Continuous learning and talent retention is important to Indian companies and organizations that have global aspirations. Similarly, professional associations like The Indus Entrepreneurs [9] and the Network of Indian Professionals of North America [10] are potent forums for recruiters wanting to reach young professionals. Recruiters need to collaborate with faculty and other senior leadership to organize “knowledge-based” sessions at Indian organizations and professional associations. Furthermore, U.S. higher-education institutions should leverage their India-based alumni to deliver information sessions at undergraduate-level institutions. Educational fairs like Linden Tours [11] or QS World MBA Tours [12] may be juxtaposed with alumni information sessions. These events can prove effective for early seeding and institutional visibility among prospective students, if used effectively.

According to a recent report [13] by McKinsey & Company, a management-consulting firm, India will become the world’s fifth largest consumer market by 2025, with people spending a much higher proportion of their income on education (McKinsey Global Institute, 2007). As the Indian middle class gains upward socioeconomic mobility, their aspirations and appetite for international higher education can only become more prominent, especially if the domestic system of higher education continues to struggle to meet demand and a desire for improved quality standards. Even with a significant increase in domestic capacity, international study will still be a strong draw for many Indian students, as there will always be a segment of the population that perceives, acknowledges and aspires for the quality and prestige of an overseas education, especially from the United States. This article seeks to provide a brief conceptual framework for U.S. recruitment officers wanting to make the best use of the opportunity available to them in the Indian market and to improve their applicant pool both in terms of quality and quantity.


Institute of International Education. Open Doors, 2007. http://opendoors.iienetwork.org/ [1]

McKinsey Global Institute (2007). The ‘Bird of Gold’: The rise of India’s consumer market. http://www.mckinsey.com/mgi/publications/india_consumer_market/index.asp [13]

Slattery, L. (2008, August 8). “Australian universities fear a dangerous dependence.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (pp. A15).