There are credible reports (an Open Doors report published annually by the Institute of International Education in partnership with the U.S. Department of State) that suggest that the number of Indian students opting for higher education in the United States has dropped, even though they still represent 14 percent of foreign students. This is alarming since most students from India aim at studying in universities in the US to broaden their cultural and intellectual horizons, improve upon their job prospects and prepare them for their next steps in education and career.
In a study conducted by IIE on prospective Indian students, engineering was the most popular intended field of study, chosen by 30-percent of respondents, followed by business and management (26 percent), physical and life sciences (9 percent) and math and computer science (5 percent). A higher proportion of men than women prefer engineering as their intended field; among women, business was slightly more popular. The most frequently cited reason for studying abroad was the quality or type of academic program (cited by 76 percent of respondents). Over one-third (37 percent) cited preparing for a future career in a foreign country or foreign-based company and about one-fifth each cited the cultural experience (21 percent) and making professional contacts (19 percent).
Look at any university website or brochure, all seem to promote a strong global presence allowing international students an opportunity to share their food, music, and traditions with their U.S. peers. Not surprisingly, the United States is host to about one quarter of all internationally mobile students according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). This group of students are individuals who have crossed a national border to study, or are enrolled in a distance learning program abroad. UIS estimates that 2 million students currently study outside their home country. Among leading host countries, the U.S. share is 40 percent, and more than double the number hosted by any of the other leading hosts. Students from Asia comprise 43 percent of globally mobile students, the largest group of international students in the world. The over 820,000 students from China alone who are studying in other countries comprise 15 percent of the world total. In addition, over 268,000 Indian students are studying outside their home country. California is the leading host state for international students with 75,032 in 2004/05, followed by New York (61,944), Texas (47,367), Massachusetts (27,985), and Florida (26,264). Some states or regions within the United States tend to be particularly popular among students from certain world regions.
Within the US institutions continue to develop various types of linkage programs or joint degree programs with universities around the globe to facilitate the exchange of students and scholars and encouraging future applications from abroad for full degree study. Fearing that high tuition costs might be deterring international students from coming to the United States, many campuses have started to offer special foreign student scholarships or “in-state tuition” rates, and have increased the number and amount of stipends to graduate assistants. While the U.S. government does not provide significant direct funding to international students, federal research funds do support international graduate students through their host institutions. Campus funding options include fellowships and international awards/scholarships, research or graduate assistantships, teaching assistantships, on-campus employment.
Many campuses have also reviewed their marketing materials and websites targeting potential international students to insure that the message is strongly welcoming and contains all the necessary information, including a suggested timeline for the application steps. Others have developed new marketing plans and strategies, and have carefully analyzed their competitor institutions.
What changes this picture is when one looks at the immigration reform and its impact on foreign students. It is a major contributor to the declining number of students from India. The F-1 student visa, for example, allows a foreign student to work as an employee or in internships with companies in his/her field of study, but appears to preclude them from being self-employed in a business venture – including active involvement in launching startups to gain real-world experience as part of an entrepreneurship program. There have been discussions at the policy level on creating a green card for foreign students receiving graduate degrees in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields so that they can work in the United States immediately post-graduation. Yet, some fear that an accelerated inflow of foreign workers may depress wages and crowd out opportunities for Americans. It is unfortunate that these baseless fears emanate from lack of information. The Department of Labor has explicit laws on Foreign labor certification programs and these are designed to assure that the admission of foreign workers into the United States on a permanent or temporary basis will not adversely affect the job opportunities, wages, and working conditions of U.S. workers.
Additionally the large majority of America’s foreign master’s and doctoral STEM degree students hail from India and China, comprising 54 and 22 percent respectively, of all such students. Under the current visa system, citizens from these two countries face waiting times that exceed 10 years for a green card due to country caps backlogs. Given these circumstances, students are pulled back and away from contributing to the US economy and are driven to their countries of origin which are now bourgeoning and growing economies. A reverse brain drain has been in process which is unfortunate considering how pertinent it is for US to maintain its leadership and a center for learning and innovation.
Rajashree Ghosh is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham.
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