Indian Perceptions of US Higher Education
By Vijaya Khandavilli
Universities and colleges in the United States have long been the destination of choice for internationally mobile students from India. This especially has been the case in the last decade of rapid economic growth and globalization; two forces that have combined to allow hundreds of thousands of Indian students to pursue educational opportunities abroad, most notably to the United States.
However, there appears to be some evidence that the appeal of U.S. schools may be on the wane among Indian students, and while this may just be a short-term phenomenon related to a broader, more general drop in international mobility trends among Indian students, knowledge and awareness of the Indian market and the decision-making processes of students and their parents will help those recruiting from the subcontinent keep enrollment levels high.
Indian students in U.S. schools: Recent enrollment trends
According to data from the Institute for International Education (IIE), there were over 103,000 Indian students enrolled in US universities and colleges in 2008/09, an increase of 9.2 percent over 2007-08 and an increase of 175 percent in the decade since 1998/99 when there were close to 37,500 Indian students at U.S. institutions of higher education.
In 2008/09 close to 69 percent of all students were studying at the graduate level, according to the IIE’s most recent Open Doors report. With such a concentration of students at the graduate level, recent admissions and application data from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) suggest that overall Indian numbers may be set to drop. The CGS’ August report on final offers of admission made by graduate schools to Indian students showed a continuing decline of 4 percent in 2009/10 versus 2008/09, after a 14 percent decline that year versus 2007/08.
Recent statistics from the State Department on F-1 student visa issuances also suggest overall numbers will be trending downward over the short term. In fiscal year (FY) 2009, 25,860 F-1 student visas were issued, a decrease of 25 percent over FY 2008 when 36,149 visas were issued, and less than the 26,342 issued to Indian students in FY 2006. A further marginal fall is predicted for FY 2010.
Trends in graduate management studies, one of the most popular fields for Indian students at U.S. colleges, also suggest downward pressure on enrollments. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s (GMAC) 2009 Asian Geo Trends report, there has been a shift in interest away from the United States as a study destination. From testing year 2005 to 2009, the overall proportion of Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) scores sent to the United States by Indian citizens fell from 75 percent to 56 percent, with the proportion sent to Indian schools rising from 8 percent to 16 percent. Over that same timeframe, it should be noted that while the proportion of GMAT scores sent from India to U.S. schools dropped as a percentage of the whole, the total volume of scores sent rose considerably, from just over 43,000 to 75,499. However, it should further be noted that the figure for the last testing year (2009/10) reportedly dropped over 13 percent to 65,361.
While the IIE’s Open Doors report shows growth in Indian enrollments, it is particularly important to note that the latest data, which covers academic year 2008/09, does not reflect fully the impact of the global economic crisis, especially as relates to the high current levels of unemployment in the United States. And because the IIE statistics are a count of total enrollments, they should be considered a four-year moving average as opposed to more current single-year statistics from the other data sources cited above, all three of which show a drop in demand from India. This would suggest that IIE enrollment figures for India will trend down in the coming years. This is especially the case if one considers that the three other data sources not only cover total demand (visa statistics), but also demand at the graduate level where 7 in 10 Indian students are studying (CGS reports), and in one of the two most popular disciplines: business (GMAC reports).
The students represented by the data are also at different stages of the enrollment process: Testing (GMAC), application (CGS), prior to enrollment (visas), and post-admission (IIE). Also, if the Open Doors statistics are examined closely, one would see that graduate total enrollments in 2008/09, although increased in absolute numbers, actually decreased as a percentage of the total Indian student body versus 2007/08. This observation therefore helps to strengthen the validity of the CGS data, which has been showing a downward trend in Indian graduate numbers for the last two years.
|Year||Percentage of Indian Students at the Graduate Level (IIE)||Final Offers of Admission to Indian Graduate Students (CGS)|
Source: Open Doors, CGS
* Initial Number (may be revised)
With these current enrollment trends in mind, what might the future hold in terms of the movement of Indian students into the U.S. system of higher education? Has there been a change in Indian society and the mindset of students? What can U.S. institutions do to retain their position in the Indian market?
In an attempt to find some answers to these questions, this article will offer a quick analysis of the available data with regards to observed changes in Indian society and the mindset of Indian students and their parents, before looking at strategies that U.S. institutions might undertake to maintain enrollment numbers from India. The analysis comes largely from a small survey of India-based student-advising professionals and students (and their parents) who are either looking to study in the United States or who are currently enrolled at institutions in either the United States, France or the United Kingdom. The student sample is small, so should be considered somewhat anecdotal, yet it is diverse in gender, academic level, and geographic location.
Is the United States losing its appeal for Indian students?
The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ According to all the advisers that I contacted for this article, the United States is still the preferred destination for Indian students. However, today’s internationally mobile student is more discerning and more willing to explore all available options, which, in recent years, have increased significantly. And not only have the study abroad options expanded, but in my experience over the last seven to eight years, there has been a gradual attitude change among Indian students. Traditionally risk-averse, Indian students appear to have become more self-confident and self-directed in their overseas decision-making processes.
Arjun Kamath, a bachelor of technology graduate from BITS, Pilani and an applicant to graduate programs in the United States, suggests that students “think hard about what you really WANT to do. You are old enough to decide and you should postpone/give up your plans altogether if you don’t get a call from inside. Simply going for a higher paying job or to live in the United States is ill-advised.”
Aditya Medury, a graduate student at University of California, Berkeley agreed, stating that Indian students should not “be afraid to explore alternate career options, perceived to be apart from the ‘mainstream’ in an Indian context, if they are of interest.”
And Indian attitudes to their domestic education system are also changing. One could say that they are no longer blindly lured by the ‘foreign-educated’ tag. Riti Kapoor, whose daughter chose India over the United States or the United Kingdom for her undergraduate study, says, “even though I know of the high quality of education in the U.S., I did not force it on my daughter just for the label.”
The high cost of a U.S. education, although a disincentive to some, is not a deterrent for the families who can afford it. Indian parents are willing to invest their last rupee in their children’s education, a departure from the previous mindset of “saving for a rainy day.” Of course, they would invest only if they are assured of global quality and a good return, which oftentimes means a good job in the country of study.
Swetha Muthanna, an EducationUSA adviser in Bengaluru suggests that, “return on investment (ROI) is fastest when it happens in the same currency,” meaning that dollars spent are expected to come back as dollars earned in a U.S. paycheck after graduation. But the definition of ROI itself can be different for different individuals.
For Dr. Desiraju, the ROI is not just numerical but also qualitative. “If I am able to provide high quality education for my children, neither the currency nor the time it takes to return matters. It must be a top-rated program in the U.S. Or else, I shall choose the cheaper options in Europe,” says Desiraju.
What attracts Indian students to a U.S. education?
A majority of survey respondents when asked if they decided on their country of study before all other considerations said that the destination was indeed the first decision they made before narrowing down to a specific institution. This appears to especially be true for undergraduate applicants, whereas more graduate applicants were keyed in on field of study as opposed to country of study. The perceived quality of education in the United States seems to be the major motivating factor for students of all academic levels. However, there were differing definitions of quality.
Kamath and Medury, and two graduate students interviewed at the University of Texas, Dallas, described exposure to industries performing cutting-edge research as highly motivating. The opportunity for research, a facility not commonly available in India at the undergraduate level, inspired Kritika Dusad at the University of Chicago and Ankita Chowdhury at Boston University. For Anshu Chopra, whose son is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, the diverse living and learning environment and student-centric pedagogy are the two most appealing factors. Nandini Chowdhury, mother of a graduate student at Emory University is excited at the opportunity for her daughter to work with the best minds – professors and peers. Medury also pointed to the attraction of interdisciplinary studies at U.S. universities as well as the opportunity to develop as an individual in a different culture.
What are the disincentives to studying in the U.S.?
The high cost of studying in the United States combined with reduced funding, internship and work placement opportunities caused by the economic slowdown have all been cited as major disincentives, sometimes to the extent that they offset the perceived quality advantage of a U.S. higher education. In addition, there are an increasing number of competing study destinations that offer quality learning opportunities with additional perceived benefits such as better post-graduation work opportunities, better in-study work opportunities, and easier visa processes.
Other factors that push (and pull) Indian students to non-U.S. destinations include: Recognition of three-year Indian undergraduate programs; shorter-duration bachelor’s and master’s programs; fewer admission tests; simpler application processes; shorter application cycles; simplified admission decisions (often on-the-spot); and relative low cost.
For Kanav Mahajan, who chose a French school over a U.S. one, Europe’s multicultural and multilingual exposure was a big draw. His mother, Sonia Mahajan, explains, “Kanav was admitted to a top-rated college in the U.S. with generous funding support. It was tough for us to refuse such an offer. Yet, Europe with its limited space but wide exposure to a diverse landscape of languages and cultures pulled us away from the U.S. Considering Kanav’s love for languages and theater, France seemed a better proposition. He is able to learn different languages and pursue his theater activities in Spain during school breaks. And the shorter duration (three years) of the undergraduate program in France finally tilted the scales.”
Application processes and admission decisions
While many students and parents find U.S. institutions to be extremely welcoming to international students, with plentiful web-based information available to those researching from abroad, a majority finds the application processes of U.S. universities and colleges to be difficult to negotiate, at times cumbersome and arduous. Many India-based advising professionals share this point of view.
For undergraduate applicants, the timing of the application process is particularly problematic because it clashes with their preparations for Class 12 board exams. Undergraduate applicants therefore suggest that application deadlines for Indian students be brought forward to Oct. 1 – 15, with early notifications by Nov. 15.
Dr. Desiraju, father of a graduate applicant, questions why universities ask for applications by Dec. 1 when the review process starts only in March after the spring admissions are over. He also suggests a uniform notification deadline of April 1 and that deadlines should be binding on all graduate programs across the country. His son, Arun Desiraju found the multiple applications, up to three for one university, cumbersome. Sourabh Jain recommends a common application structure with a one-time application fee for all graduate programs and online acceptance of supporting documents. Many survey respondents suggested that hard copy documents should be asked for only after provisional admission is granted.
Students and parents find the application review processes to be vague and uncertain leading to students applying to 10 to 12 universities, which is a waste of time and effort for all concerned. The respondents came up with a variety of suggestions. Kamath recommends setting up a formal student body in each university or department that could look at applicant profiles and comment on their chances. Anshu Chopra suggests shortlisting applicants based on their SAT scores and academic records, or a process similar to the eligibility calculator of the University of California system. The shortlisted applicants could then go on to write essays and fill forms.
Another impediment that a majority of the respondents identified was the high cost of tuition fees and lack of funding support, especially for masters programs. Kamath suggests scholarships specific to Indian students. The suggestion may seem a tad impractical or even outlandish but is already in practice at some institutions. Pittsburgh-based Duquesne University, which has a strong India-recruitment focus, recently announced scholarships worth $200,000 to incoming undergraduate students from India. This announcement was reported widely in the Indian media, and would appear to not only be a generous scholarship offer, but also a good publicity tool.
The Canadian state of Quebec has made two unique offers to prospective Indian students. The first is a scholarship offer, administered through the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, which allows 29 graduate level students from India (15 masters, 14 doctoral) to attend any Quebec university at the same tuition rates paid by domestic students. Perhaps more significant was the announcement by the province’s premier, Jean Charest, at the University of Mumbai in February that foreign students who graduate from universities in Quebec will get “a certificate of selection” that will put them on a fast track to Canadian citizenship.
Private advisers and those at the U.S. government’s EducationUSA offices agree that the United States remains the top choice for Indian students but that it also faces stiff competition from several countries in Asia, Europe and Australasia. They also predict a lessened interest in U.S. business schools, because of the lower costs of schools in Asia (including India) and Europe, which have all been gaining in popularity among Indian students in recent years.
EducationUSA advisers from Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Kolkata say they have been seeing a growing interest in U.S. undergraduate opportunities. However, according to Manjiri Ganu, an adviser from Hyderabad, the United States is mainly viewed as a back-up option for undergraduate students in her region. If students do not get admitted to their program or college of choice in India, they consider America. According to Aradhana Mahna, Managing Director of the Princeton Review in India, this trend will not be seen in top-rated U.S. colleges because of their limited seats and high costs. It should be noted that despite the anecdotal evidence suggesting a growing interest in U.S. undergraduate opportunities, the actual enrollment of Indian first-level students at US colleges has hovered around 15 to 16 percent of the total Indian student body for several years now.
Advisers agree with all the disincentives that the students identified and suggest suitable strategies. Shevanti Narayan, an education adviser in Kolkata recommends more recruitment visits to her region encouraging face-to-face interaction with admissions officers. All the advisers recommended shortened application cycles, early deadlines and notifications for undergraduate students and uniform filing and notification deadlines for graduate students. Some suggested that financial fitness statements should be asked for only after provisional admission is given, which is closer to the visa application date. This way, students would not have to arrange for two statements, one at the application time and the other at the time of visa application.
Current trends and suggested strategies for the future
The profile of study abroad students from India is changing. It is no longer just the high achieving students from prestigious institutions and large metros that are studying abroad, but also students from non-metro towns and second-tier institutions. At the same time, with the current strength of the Indian economy, many university graduates that might previously have been looking abroad to undertake graduate studies are now receiving attractive job placement offers. This means that many high caliber students from IITs and other top-rated professional colleges, who have traditionally been the type of Indian student recruited by U.S. graduate schools, are accepting these job offers and postponing plans for graduate study.
These students are, however, interested in global summer internships while in college. Institutions in France, Germany, Singapore and the UK are quick to fulfill this demand. And this is a strategy U.S. universities should pursue more vigorously if they are interested in increasing enrollments from India. Shina Gulati, a prospective graduate applicant from Delhi University attended a three-week summer school at the London School of Economics and is convinced of the merits of such short duration programs. Indian students generally do not get the opportunity for campus visits, but internships and summer schools provide an opportunity for familiarization with the campus. Another strategy that could help tap talent is to design programs like the Harvard Business School’s 2+2 program for college juniors.
Progressive Indian institutions, mostly private, have opened up offshore campuses in Asia and the Gulf and these are pulling away some of the traditional study abroad students by offering low-cost foreign education. Others are internationalizing their curricula and inviting foreign faculty to teach a semester or two. Internationalization of Indian universities is also happening through academic collaborations. Collaborations have moved from the traditional, single partner, 2+2 twinning programs to a variety of innovative programs. SRM University, Chennai provides a classic example of this recent trend with academic collaborations across the globe in six countries. Customized collaborations could be a way to overcome the incompatibility hurdle of the three-year Indian bachelor’s programs for graduate admission in the US.
Most students and advisers that I received response from for this survey agreed that U.S. higher education has not lost its sheen in India. It remains the top choice for Indian students interested in studying abroad, and while there may be a temporary cooling off of interest in U.S. colleges among Indian students, most agree that it will be short-lived and will reverse once the U.S. economy regains a steady footing and funding opportunities for Indian students become more plentiful.
However, U.S. institutions of higher education should be mindful of the fact that because the international education market has become so highly competitive over the last decade, no country or institution – not even the world leaders – can rest on past laurels. Institutions that understand their target markets and can tailor their offerings accordingly by building innovative collaborations and developing focused recruitment strategies are those that will fare best in attracting the best talent from India and the world.
Vijaya Khandavilli is an international education consultant and has held various leadership positions at international education organizations, including the Fulbright Commission and EducationUSA at the US India Educational Foundation.