Indian students make a beeline for US universities, even dubious ones, braving a weak rupee.

The drumbeat regarding the shortage of American talent in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields has been heard constantly for nearly two years.

It was Mitt Romney who started it all. Campaigning to dethrone Barack Obama in last year’s presidential election, Romney famously said, “If you get an advanced degree here, we want you to stay here — so we will staple a green card to your diploma.”

After Obama won re-election on a platform promising comprehensive immigration reform — with significant electoral help from the large Asian diaspora — the movement to push for STEM changes began to take shape, with Mark Zuckerberg as its face.

The founder of Facebook knows all about thinking big ideas and promoting them. In an op-ed in The Washington Post in March, Zuckerberg argued that “to lead the world in this new economy, we need the most talented and hardest-working people. We need to train and attract the best”.

Zuckerberg is the leader of fwd.us, an organisation he founded with other technology titans including Reid Hoffman, Eric Schmidt, Marissa Mayer and John Doerr. Its mission: Bring more able technologists to the US, no matter where they are born.

Aggressive lobbying

So aggressive was this group’s lobbying effort that the US senate, in June 2013, voted 68-32 for an immigration Bill which included many sweeteners for the average international student.

This Bill is not law yet (the house of representatives has yet to vote on it) but the die has been cast.

Meanwhile, the Indian student saw extremely favourable tailwinds. For the first time in years the US economy was growing and most Indian students in the US appeared to get jobs rather easily if they were in the right STEM fields.

With the prospect of immigration reform on the cards, the student figured, there was no better time to go to the US to study.

The numbers say it all. The Wall Street Journal said this week that US graduate schools reported an incredible 40 per cent jump in new Indian students, far outpacing the 1 per cent and 2 per cent increases seen in 2012 and 2011, respectively.

This comes on the heels of another, broader report from the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP), released in July 2013.

This said that foreign students make up the majority of enrolments in US graduate programmes in many STEM fields, including 36 graduate programmes in electrical engineering where the proportion of international students exceeds 80 per cent, and seven where it exceeds 90 per cent!

Ambitious students

For Indian students, however, the 40 per cent jump in enrolments is remarkable considering that the Indian rupee has lost nearly 20 per cent of its value against the dollar from the time these students first decided to apply to US schools last fall.

So attractive, presumably, is the prospect of obtaining a US degree now that these students have simply shrugged off the additional 20 per cent expense in an education tab that is already extremely high.

After all, the US is the second-most expensive country in the world to get a college degree, next only to Australia.

For the ambitious and smart Indian student, however, the US clearly offers opportunities unmatched by any other country.

The top students, that I talk to, know that the US is innovating in many fields — alternative energy, battery technologies, robotics, biotechnology, big data, 3-D printing, and core software engineering — and want to get in on the action because similar opportunities in India are limited.

These are students who have already registered for free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), where all you need is a computer and an internet connection to learn from star instructors from MIT, Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, UT Austin and UC Berkeley.

Once a student experiences one of these classes, the draw to attend a US school, live, becomes much stronger.

Also, US higher education is now big business ($21 billion a year) and universities aggressively promote international student recruiting.

While most US schools claim that adding more foreigners to their student bodies creates a more diverse educational and cultural exchange experience for their students, the real motivation is often different.

Foreign students pay valuable out-of-state tuition rates — sometimes three times the cost of in-state tuition fees at public schools — and help cash-strapped states subsidise tuition costs for in-state residents.

The marketing of US schools is taking new turns every year. Indian students today are exposed to a barrage of ads announcing the arrival of a US college.

Sustained campaign

The campaign could include organising meetings at a local five-star hotel to meet students and promote its programmes. The website of one company that organises these tours says that it has conducted more than 230 tours around the globe for over 600 colleges, including names even most Americans have never heard of, such as Alma College, Foothill and De Anza Colleges, High Point University and Salve Regina University.

And then, there’s the unscrupulous practice of commission-based recruiting, which enables colleges and universities in the US to pay commissions to foreign agents to recruit foreign students to apply to their schools.

If the foreign student enters the said school and stays in it for a year, the agent gets a commission on the student's first year fees.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the conflict of interest here, but many Indian students fall for these pitches and eagerly sign up. For them, the only thing that matters is that the school is in the US.

No matter what the reason is, the trend is clear. Indian students are flocking in hordes to the US.

And if the senate STEM provisions — such as exempting certain STEM advanced degree holders from employment-based green card caps and allowing foreign students dual intent — become law, the trend is likely to only grow, creating headaches for policymakers both in India and the US.

(The author is MD, Rao Advisors LLC, an education consulting firm counselling students who wish to go to the US.)

(This article was published on November 7, 2013)
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