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U.S. Universities Attract Increasing Number of Indian Students

American universities have become stepping-stones to success for thousands of Indian students in a trend that seems destined to accelerate.

As globalization continues to shrink the world, advanced education and competitive skill sets have become mandatory for Indian students who seek to build rewarding careers both at home and abroad. American universities, with their welcoming and flexible attitudes, commitment to quality and worldwide name recognition, consequently have become stepping-stones to success for thousands of Indian students in a trend that seems destined to accelerate.

More than 113,000 Indian students—about 11 percent of all international students in the United States—are currently enrolled in colleges and universities certified to accept foreign students, according to an April 2014 Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) report from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That’s a huge increase—the number of Indian students in the United States has tripled since 1995, according to the Open Doors 2013 report from the Institute of International Education, an independent, nonprofit educational exchange organization.

Applications From India Driving Rise in Foreign Graduate Students

Photograph by ELIZABETH DUNHAM

The number of Indian students applying to U.S. grad schools grew by 32 percent for the 2013-14 school year, according to the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, following a 22 percent gain the previous year. Meanwhile, applications from China, the main driver of graduate student growth in the past, fell by one percent in the 2013-14 school year and three percent the year before, according to the CGS survey of 308 institutions that conferred about two-thirds of all graduate degrees awarded to international students in the United States.

The financial rewards associated with grad school are significant. For example, the jobs website monster.com lists the median mid-career salary for an employee with a master’s degree in electrical engineering as $121,000, while those with a master’s degree in computer science earned $109,000 and those with a master’s degree in finance made $120,000. Graduates of schools that are considered prestigious can command even more, but applicants should be prepared for rejection, says Robert Frederking, associate dean for graduate education at Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science.

“I tell prospective students that if they’re going to apply here or to other tough schools, be sure you have multiple applications going, because even if your application is perfect, we’re only going to admit you to areas in which we expect to have [government] funding,” he says. “Applicants often want to know what’s most important, and while test scores and grades need to be outstanding, the most important things are good letters of recommendation and a good statement of purpose written by the applicant.”

The demanding admission requirements and high costs of some universities have led many Indian students to apply at more affordable colleges, with some lesser-known schools experiencing strong gains in enrollment.

“We consider ourselves a very good value,” says John Ho, dean of the Graduate School at the University of Buffalo, where out-of-state tuition fees is $10,400 annually. Ho says first-time enrollment by Indian students rose 80 percent last fall at the university, which is located in upstate New York and now has 1,266 Indian students.

“Certainly there is an emerging middle class in India that is now more capable of sending their children overseas for opportunities,” he says. “Also, students who had a good experience at the University of Buffalo take that information home and that encourages others to come here.”

Most foreign students rely on personal and family sources to finance their U.S. education, according to the Institute of International Education. However, students who gain admission to doctoral programs at some prestigious schools often receive full funding from the colleges.

“I haven’t spent a penny, which is standard, you never pay for your studies if you’re in the Ph.D. program,” says Rahul Sharma from New Delhi, who is a fourth-year Ph.D. student at Stanford University. “I also get a monthly stipend of about $2,500, but this is California so that can go pretty fast. Basically, I just want to do research, work on interesting problems and be independent without a boss sitting on my head.”

—S.F.

The Open Doors report cites Indian students’ preferred fields as engineering (36 percent), math and computer science (23 percent) and business and management (14 percent). About 56 percent of all Indian students currently in the United States are graduate students and about 13 percent are undergraduates, the report says, while more than a quarter (29 percent) are taking part in Optional Practical Training programs, which enable them to remain in the country and work in their chosen fields for varying periods of time after obtaining their degrees.

“The United States has become the higher education magnet for Indian students, and indeed for many students around the world,” says Adam J. Grotsky, executive director of the United States-India Educational Foundation (USIEF), which promotes mutual understanding between the two countries through the educational exchange of outstanding scholars, professionals and students.

“In 2012-13, over 800,000 international students pursued higher studies in the United States,” says Grotsky. “Indian students flock to the U.S. for the quality of education, high-end research, hands-on learning and practical training opportunities. Individual needs of students vary, with career advancement uppermost in grad students’ minds, while the quality of education, the flexibility of the education system and the multiplicity of degree options guide the decisions of undergraduates.”

While a number of factors are driving the growth in Indian student applications, most observers agree that higher income levels associated with advanced education is a primary factor. While figures for Indian students specifically are not available, there’s little question that individuals with U.S. college degrees command higher salaries, with the advantage increasing along with education levels. According to Education Pays 2013, a study by the nonprofit College Board, the median annual earnings for full-time U.S. workers with high school diplomas in 2011 was $35,400. That number rose to $56,500 for those with bachelor’s degrees, $70,000 for those with master’s degrees, $91,000 for those with doctoral degrees and $102,200 for those with professional degrees. Over a 40-year working lifetime, the study found, those with bachelor’s degrees could expect to earn 165 percent of what those with high school diplomas made, with comparable numbers rising to 196 percent for those with master’s degrees, 243 percent for doctoral degrees and 292 percent for professional degrees.

For 20-year-old Shreyas Vivek Gupta from New Delhi, who is finishing his studies in entrepreneurship and business management at Babson College near Boston, Massachusetts, a U.S. university offered the opportunity “to gain from the hands-on approach to teaching.

“In the U.S., ‘learning by doing’ is emphasized rather than rote learning,” Gupta says. “Therefore, I hope to make optimum use of this practical learning by gaining the necessary skills to succeed as an entrepreneur after graduation. My father runs our family business and I plan to join him and take the business to newer heights using my learnings from the four years I spent in the U.S.”

An American college education is expensive—in its most recent survey of college pricing, the College Board reports that a “moderate” college budget for an in-state public college for the 2013-14 academic year averaged $22,826. Private colleges cost much more—the comparable “modest budget” figure from the College Board is $44,750 a year. For colleges that are considered prestigious, the numbers can be even higher. At Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, international undergraduate students currently pay an estimated $65,015 per year for tuition, room and board and other expenses. Costs for graduate students vary, ranging from about $60,000 to about $75,000 per year, says Linda Gentile, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Office of International Education.

These numbers don’t dissuade foreign students though—about one-third of Carnegie Mellon’s students are from overseas, including more than 1,100 from India—in large part due to the potential career payoffs, especially at the Ph.D. level.

“When I got admitted to the Ph.D. program here, it was like getting my first big role in Hollywood,” says Robert Frederking, associate dean for graduate education at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science. “If you get a computer science Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon, everyone in your field knows who you are. Our graduates go into academia or, if they go into industry, they’re running research groups at Google or Facebook or Microsoft. I tell my students, ‘If you don’t make it after getting a Ph.D. here, it’s your own issue.’”

Although U.S. universities have stepped up their recruiting efforts overseas in recent years, many colleges have lengthy histories of welcoming foreign students, including the school with the largest number of international students—the University of Southern California, which has 10,635 international students.

“USC has always actively recruited foreign graduate students—even back to this institution’s earliest days in the 1880’s, one could find international students in our classrooms,” said USC Dean of Admission Timothy E. Brunold. “USC believes that no one can truly claim to be educated unless they have had the opportunity to live and learn with people from other countries and/or with people from backgrounds different from their own.”  

Colleges with large numbers of international students tend to attract even more, Brunold observes, as graduates return home and spread the word about their experiences. For example, USC enrolled 1,585 students from India in Fall 2013—a 20 percent increase from the previous year—with a majority pursuing graduate degrees, primarily in engineering. However, USC is also seeing more undergraduate applications, with Brunold noting that, “The emerging middle class in developing countries has really spurred the recent acceleration in undergraduate recruitment.”

While competition and costs at the highest levels are significant, Indian students who want an American college education have thousands of schools—including community colleges—to choose from.

“Indian students and their families have realized that the intense competition for limited spots at the top Indian schools translates into low admit rates,” says Renuka Raja Rao, EducationUSA country coordinator at USIEF. “While for some families, going to the U.S. is Plan B, for the majority, it is Plan A. Many families decide not to put their children through the two to three years of stress of preparing for the competitive entrance exams to elite Indian colleges and universities that admit less than one percent of applicants and instead look to options abroad.”

Indian students who want to gain admission to a good U.S. university need to begin their planning in the 9th or 10th grade, says Ishrat Jahan, regional educational advising coordinator in New Delhi for EducationUSA, a U.S. Department of State-supported network of advising centers in some 160 countries that is the primary source of information for students and scholars who seek access to U.S. higher education.

“The most important thing is for them to define their own goals—exactly what they are hoping to achieve by studying abroad—and to be realistic about where they are academically and what their family can afford,” says Jahan. “Harvard and MIT just aren’t going to work for everybody, but if they start doing their research early, they can find the right university and put together a good application package.” 

Prospective students can meet representatives of U.S. universities at the annual IIE-USIEF-EducationUSA Higher Education Fairs in New Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Mumbai. Also, many U.S. institutions have alumni groups in India or can connect students with individual alumni who can provide first-hand information about specific universities and career opportunities.

Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.