Mobility Patterns and Pathways of Indian Engineers to the U.S.

More than 25 million Indians have emigrated and currently reside in countries around the world. Nearly 2.6 million of them live in the United States, forming the third largest immigrant population there. Compared to the overall foreign- and native-born populations, the U.S.-based Indian diaspora is younger, with higher levels of academic achievement, according to the Migration Policy Institute [1]. Recent research from the National Science Foundation [2] also shows that India is the top country of birth for immigrant scientists and engineers in the U.S., increasing nearly 85% in the decade between 2003 and 2013 to reach 950,000 immigrants. This corresponds to the fact that India sends a large number of skilled migrants to U.S. through the H-1 B and L1 work visas and is also the second largest source of international students in the U.S. (F1 visa).

While more than 100,000 Indian students are enrolled in U.S. higher education, they are primarily concentrated at the master’s level in engineering related fields. For example, 65% of all students from India are enrolled in engineering and computer science programs [3] as compared to 22% of international students in U.S. more broadly. Another characteristic of Indian students aspiring to study abroad is price-sensitivity in terms of the total cost of education, a fact that helps explain the relative flattening of Indian enrollments in the U.S. in the post-recession era between 2008 and 2014, following years of growth.

What explains these unique characteristics of Indian students? How can higher education institutions better understand the drivers of mobility of these students and attract talent from a complex and important market like India? The primary purpose of this article is to uncover the global mobility patterns of Indian engineers and help higher education institutions improve their enrollment strategies.

This article is structured in three primary sections. First, we discuss the landscape of higher education in India. Then we dive deep into the structure of engineering education in India. Finally, we look into the global mobility patterns of engineering students from India with specific emphasis on the U.S. as a destination market and students’ pathways to immigration.

Pathways of Indian Talent to the U.S._WES [4]Large Education System Growing in Size, Complexity and Quality Issues

Tertiary-level enrollments in India have been growing [5] at breakneck speed in recent years, from 13.8 million in 2006 to almost 22 million in 2012. This growth has specifically been driven by enrollment in engineering, which grew by over 200% from 1.8 million in 2006-07 to 5.46 million in 2011-12 (Table 1).

Growth of Enrollment by Field of Study_India_WES [6]In the same five-year period, the number of colleges affiliated with degree-granting institutions increased by nearly 12,000 (Table 2). However, this much-needed expansion came at the expense of quality [7], according to many observers, primarily due to an incoherent policy and legal framework. The system of affiliated colleges has often been described as a curse as it “makes the system highly fragmented, scattered and difficult to manage [8].”

India_Higher Education Institutions_WES [9]In order to achieve the goals of expanding access to higher education, regulations governing privately funded universities were eased to allow approval by state acts or from central authorities such as the University Grant Commission (UGC). This resulted in a complex framework of Deemed Universities [10] and Private State Universities [11] of varying quality and that were often taken to task by the UGC for a lack of compliance [12] with the regulatory framework.

The complexity of the Indian higher education system [7] is further compounded by the large number of regulatory bodies that oftentimes have overlapping scopes of authority, resulting in power struggles and additional confusion for stakeholders. For example, while overall higher education is regulated by the UGC, engineering institutions are regulated by the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). Also, accreditation bodies such as the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) is under the governance of UGC, while the National Board of Accreditation (NBA) is overseen by the AICTE. This overlap creates a situation of power struggle and inconsistent policies which is now prompting the government to review the functioning of the regulators [13]. Likewise, for foreign institutions interested in establishing partnerships [14] or recruiting students face dizzying and frustrating situations in India.

In brief, Indian higher education has grown not only in size but also in regulatory complexity with resulting implications for overall quality standards. Next, we will look into the biases of this growth with a specific focus on the interaction between engineering institutions and graduate employability.

IT Boom Drives Oversupply of Engineering Institutions

Since the 1990s, the information technology (IT) industry has been booming in India. As the IT industry has grown, so the value of an engineering degree has grown, a trend that has been the impetus for higher-pay employment among the ranks of India’s growing middle class. The resultant increased demand for an engineering education has led to rapid growth of engineering colleges in India pursuant to the rise of the software industry1 [15]. The majority of this growth has been driven by private institutions as they constitute more than 90% of all engineering colleges in India.

Engineering Institutions in India [16]Competition for places at India’s best engineering colleges remains intense. The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), for example, accept less than two percent of applicants2 [17] taking their admissions tests. The same Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) and the All India Engineering Entrance Examination (AIEEE) is used for undergraduate admissions to engineering programs at the prestigious National Institutes of Technology (NIT), in addition to a number of centrally funded institutions and leading private universities and institutions.

In this context, where only a small proportion of students gain entry into the best engineering institutions, many graduates from lesser known engineering institutions enter the job market lacking the required skills, and thus face the challenge of underemployment or unemployment. According to National Employability Reports Engineers, less than 20 percent of engineers are employable [18] for IT jobs, and just 7.49 percent are employable for core engineering jobs.

As predicted, the “disproportionate and disconnected [19]” nature of the engineering education pipeline has resulted in overcapacity. A recent announcement from the AICTE indicates that it plans to cut the number of seats for undergraduate engineering by nearly 40 percent or 600,000 seats [20]. With the slowdown of the IT industry [21], the net effect is that many more engineers are either unemployed [22] or underemployed and are also searching for the next opportunity for career advancement. This is where a search for better opportunities brings many to work or study in the U.S.

U.S. as a Destination for Indian Engineers in Search of Advancement

The U.S. is the preferred destination for Indian students. More than half of the 200,000 Indian students around the world are enrolled in U.S. higher education (UNESCO [23]). This preference is not only based on the reputation of U.S. higher education, but also because of the important economic connection that the U.S. market has with the IT industry. Export of IT services from India [24] is expected to reach US$100 billion in 2015 with more than 60% of it going to the U.S. market.

Given the large size of the IT services market in the U.S., an ecosystem of education and employment has emerged for Indian skilled migrants. This is reflected in the enrollment patterns of Indian students which is skewed towards engineering and computer science fields, according to IIE data, which also show that nearly 60% of Indian students are enrolled at the graduate level (Table 4). This IIE data reports graduate students on Optional Practical Training (OPT) separately and combines students at master’s and doctoral levels under “graduate”. However, looking at enrollment patterns from the Student and Visitor Exchange Information System [25] (SEVIS), which excludes graduates on OPT visa extensions, we find that 73% of all Indian students are enrolled in master’s program, 13% in doctorate and only 11% in bachelor’s programs.

Enrollment Patterns-Indian Students in the U.S. [26]WES’ segmentation framework of international students [27], identified four categories —Highfliers, Explorers, Strivers and Strugglers – based on their academic preparedness and financial resources. The research indicates that Indian students are most likely to be Strivers – students with low financial resources and high academic preparedness. This cohort has traditionally relied on student loans or financial aid to finance their education abroad, which is why the impact of the 2008 global recession – and the resulting credit crunch – has kept the growth of this segment stagnant.

According to the latest WES research report [28] on international student mobility, which surveyed 2,388 master’s level applicants for foreign credential evaluation at World Education Services, Indian students expect a good return on their investment for a U.S. education, with almost six out of ten students considering career prospects as the most important factor influencing their decisions to study in the U.S.

These students are driven towards master’s degree in public institutions that offer a higher value for their investment. With approximately 70 percent of prospective Indian master’s students indicating their preference to apply at public schools, they are the only country with a majority of students choosing public institutions.

As shown by all these factors, Indian students tend to enroll in fields of study that have good employment potential. For example, many students begin their studies in the U.S. with the goal of working in the information technology (IT) services sector. They start by enrolling in master’s level programs in STEM [29] (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) related fields, follow it with a 29-month OPT experience in the IT industry, and finally seek H1-visas for employment.

The growth of Indian students opting for OPT has been substantial following the approval of the OPT extension to a maximum of 29 months for STEM degrees in 2008 [30], viewed as offering better prospects for H1-visas in the IT industry. In 2013/14, more than three-quarters of Indian students were enrolled in STEM programs and 27 percent of all Indian students in the U.S. were on OPT as compared to 12 percent of all international students (IIE Open Doors 2013-14 [31]). The majority of Indian students are concentrated in large U.S. metro areas [32] with ample IT jobs like New York and San Jose, and in the period from 2009 to 2013, these U.S. cities also accounted for the largest number of Indian immigrants [33]. More recently, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposed to extend OPT for STEM students from 29 months to 36 months [34] which can further provide pathways from education to employment for STEM students.

According to recent data, nearly 47 percent of the H-1B visas [35] issued by the U.S. government for workers in engineering-related jobs were for Indian citizens. The attractiveness of the United States for Indians in the field of science & engineering is evidenced from the data, which indicates that in 2011, Indians accounted for 18 percent [36] of the total number of foreign-born U.S. residents aged 25 and older with science and engineering (S&E) degrees – more than any other country. Also, more than half of Indian immigrants [33] in the U.S. obtain lawful permanent residence (also known as receiving a “green card”) through employment-based preference.


In this article, we have uncovered the global mobility patterns of Indian engineers to help higher education institutions better inform their enrollment strategies. The Indian higher education system is characterized by its size, complexity and quality issues. Within this framework, the growth of the Indian IT industry and the number of engineering institutions has given rise to an overcapacity of undergraduate engineers, with many students finding themselves either unemployed or underemployed due to significant skills shortages upon graduation. Many of these undergraduate engineers aspire to find pathways to the U.S. either through education or employment. The Striver segment of these students is price sensitive and reacts significantly to any uncertainty in economic stability or immigration policy that might be seen as impacting prospects for finding employment in the U.S.

Moving forward, the profile of Indian students is likely to change as the children of India’s new and more affluent middle class – driven by the IT boom beginning in the 1990s – get ready for college. These Indian Highflier students [3] will start considering coming to the U.S. at the undergraduate level and likely be open to fields of study besides computer science and engineering. Institutions should therefore be aware of the shifting profile of Indian students. While India will continue to have a strong base of Strivers, the emergence of Highfliers will open the doors for institutions to draw from a more diverse Indian student pool.


In this article, STEM statistics are defined by the following fields of study according to IIE unless otherwise indicated: engineering; mathematics & computer science; and life & physical science. Institute of International Education. (2013/14). Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. http://www.iie.org/opendoors [37]

Immigrant: The U.S. Census Bureau defines the foreign born as individuals who had no U.S. citizenship at birth. The foreign-born population includes naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, refugees and asylees, legal non-immigrants (including those on student, work, or other temporary visas), and persons residing in the country without authorization.

AICTE: All India Council for Technical Education Approval Process Handbook (2015-2016). http://www.aicte-india.org/downloads/Approval_Process_Handbook_2015_16.pdf [38]

Planning Commission Government of India. 2013. Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012-2017), Social Sector, Vol. III. New Delhi: Sage. http://planningcommission.gov.in/plans/planrel/12thplan/pdf/12fyp_vol3.pdf [5]

1. [39] Krishna, A. 2014. Examining the Structure of Opportunity and Social Mobility in India: Who Becomes an Engineer? Institute of Social Studies, Hague

2. [40] Varma. R & Kapoor. D. 2013. Comparative Analysis of Brain Drain, Brain Circulation and Brain Retain: A Case Study of Indian Institutes of Technology. Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice.