Why Indian students and their parents are wary of US campuses ahead of 2017-18 academic season
International student recruitment professionals, according to a report, found students and their families concerned over visas.
While those are the names you may encounter in headlines on a regular basis, there are lakhs of lesser known Indian students who seek and find a berth in some 4,726 colleges and universities across the US every year. In 2015-16, the figure stood at 1,65,918. That, according to the Open Doors Report by the Institute of International Education, was the number of Indian students in the US for higher education. That’s an almost 25% jump over the previous year’s figure of 1,32,888.
This, however, may well be the last such spike for some time to come, thanks mainly to the strong anti-immigration rhetoric by US President Donald Trump. The international admission season now kicks in for most US campuses, although numbers will not be available before fall 2017, when most students will join their classes. A recent report in Inside Higher Ed, an online content provider in the higher education space, suggested that about 40% of US colleges have seen a decline in applications from international students.
International student recruitment professionals, according to the report, found students and their families concerned over visas and worried about the US having become a less welcoming destination following the election of Trump.
US government agencies, though, are still upbeat. “The US institutions attract so many Indian students because of the quality of education — India is, in fact, the second leading place of origin for international students after China. Since November last year several campuses have been running the #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign as an outreach to global students to not just make them feel at home but also assure them that there are communities here dedicated to them,” says Alfred M Boll, branch chief of EducationUSA under the US Department of State’s bureau of educational and cultural affairs.
Presidents of many top universities too have come out with public statements, including some who are of Indian origin, to reassure international students that they are welcome.
In the face of uncertainty surrounding the H-1B visa, which provides an opportunity for many Indian students to work in the US after they finish their education, universities are tapping into their alumni networks as well as campus support systems to guide overseas students.
“Nothing has changed as far as visas for Indian students are concerned, and those studying in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields have an optional practical training (OPT) period after their courses of up to three years when they can stay back in the US and gain professional experience,” adds Boll. Rahul Choudaha, CEO, DrEducation, an American research firm specialising in international students, however, feels that it’s not just stricter visa rules that will hurt the ability of Indian students to go to the US.
“The impact of currency demonetisation in India, which may have resulted in some students finding it difficult to arrange for finances, could result in higher visa refusals.” The key trigger for an overseas education for most Indian students is to earn an American degree at a low cost and recover the educational investment over time. Indian students are concentrated in engineering and computer science master’s programmes in public institutions that offer lower tuition and cost of living options.
The three-year OPT and subsequent H-1B are a critical consideration in recovering the investment in education. “Given the recent perception of discrimination and racism in certain regions, some of the universities outside the top ones will find it challenging to attract Indian students for this academic year. However, most of the top-ranked institutions will remain immune to decline in enrolment,” adds Choudaha.
The message from the US government is clear — that safety and security on campuses is a primary concern at all levels, including within the campuses. However, despite all the reassurances from the US government, there are concerns that have increased since Trump took charge at the White House. The sense of unease is palpable on various campuses.
“There are legitimate concerns under the Trump administration over the H-1B visa and we have seen some of our former students having trouble getting jobs after their student visa period is over. A few have moved to unusual career paths such as working in India or in Europe for a year with global companies before they will perhaps move back to the US,” says Irfan Nooruddin, a professor at the school of foreign service at Georgetown University in Washington DC, who moved to the US in 1992 as a student himself from Mumbai.
A few miles away at Fairfax, Virginia, close to Washington DC, there are apprehensions about enrolment of Indian students at George Mason University as well. “So far we find that the enrolment rates are flat. International students, including those from India, are probably taking time over their decision to join campuses in the US. However, there’s time till August for them to make up their minds and we are making efforts towards additional outreach,” says Amy Takayama-Perez, dean of admission at George Mason. Her team is reaching out to students in India through social media and other platforms to answer any questions they may have on living on campus, safety and work opportunities.
The university has 50 undergrad students and 530 graduate students from India, with the largest number enrolled in computer science, telecommunications and data analytics courses. Many students are part of the outreach efforts. Aditya Trivedi from Mumbai, for instance, is a graduate student in computer science who volunteers for the international students office at George Mason. “In my computer science class, a majority of the students are Indians. So working with the overseas office helps me connect with the larger community and later may also help me in networking when I start looking for a job,” he says.
There are problems too that some students face. Swapnil Goud Tadkal, a graduate student in computer forensics from Telengana’s Sangareddy district, finds that government agencies which are large employers in the Virginia area are unlikely to offer jobs or even internships to foreign students in an area like cybersecurity. This is against a backdrop of heightened security measures under the Trump administration.
“After my course is done, I will look for opportunities in private firms in Texas or Silicon Valley,” says Tadkal. Indian students’ associations at various universities, meanwhile, are stepping up efforts to help students keep abreast of immigration rules around the F1 students visa status. An F1 visa is a non-immigrant visa for those wishing to study in the US.
Cause for concern?
University at Buffalo, New York, had notched up a high of roughly 1,600 Indian students across undergraduate and graduate courses in various disciplines in the fall of 2016. “But this year we do sense heightened anxiety around immigration and employment issues and we are doing all we can to help prospective students by answering all their questions and supporting them,” admits Dr Satish K Tripathi, the Indian-American president of Buffalo University since 2011.
Tripathi is an alumnus of Banaras Hindu University. Indian students at the university feel that while their overall experience on campus has been positive, a few recent incidents have caused concern. “We have seen a few international students being harassed verbally. The entire community, however, has been supportive and there has been a strong petition to declare Buffalo a sanctuary campus,” says Shayani Bhattacharya, a student from Kolkata who has just completed a PhD in English and is headed for a tenured track position at a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania.
Kent State, a public university in Ohio, has seen a fall in international students from 3,045 in the spring 2016 semester to 2,489 a year later, according to figures from the university’s communications and marketing team. The figures were published in a report on its website. The highest number of overseas students on the Kent campus are from India, at 691; the fall has been attributed to the turbulent political climate in the US by the office of global education of the university. Some universities believe jumping to conclusions about a slump in interest may be premature.
“It is far too early in enrolment to be definitive but at this point we are actually slightly ahead of our overall international student numbers at this time last year,” says Dr Roger Brindley, vice-president at the University of South Florida (USF).
Addressing some of the important concerns of students in India during a recent trip to the country, Brindley pointed out that so far there have been no changes in the rules for OPT. “The focus of the executive order on H-1B appears to be on multinational employers and lower-paid tech jobs. Our master’s and doctoral graduates are being recruited for middle/high-paying jobs as they complete their OPT. Simply put, as they apply for their F1 student visas this summer, they are not the focus of this H-1B executive order.”
Many students who are enrolled in STEM courses remain upbeat because they can legally remain in the US for three years after their courses, working or looking for jobs. Piyush Malviya who is enrolled in the Robert A Foisie School of Business at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts for a management information systems course, believes there will be good opportunities for him on the business side of IT.
“However, I believe there might be a decline in the number of students going to the US for studies due to the change in administration. It has become a little difficult currently to find employers who will sponsor international graduates for a required work authorisation or H-1B visas.” Varsha Parthasarathy, a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, doesn’t see any cause for concern for Indian students who are enrolled at the top colleges and universities.
She feels that the alumni network and the university will help in the job search process despite some companies being a bit cautious about sponsoring international students for H-1B visas. Meanwhile, on June 8, the US embassy in Delhi and the consulates general in Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai, opened their doors to more than 4,000 Indian students applying for visas on what was earmarked as Student Visa Day. Chargé d’Affaires MaryKay Carlson and consuls general throughout India congratulated applicants as they joined the growing ranks of Indian students studying in the US.
Arunima Sharma, who will join an MS management sciences programme at Columbia University in New York City, was among the students who received her F1 visa on that day. She has spent a few months at Stanford University as a global ambassador in 2015-2016 and feels that students don’t have to worry despite political issues. “US college campuses are secure and students’ associations and international offices are always willing to help. Besides, most varsities have very active alumni associations. For those concerned about repaying loans, even the three year OPT can be enough to get a good job and clear the outstandings,” says an upbeat Sharma.
The writer was in the US at the invitation of the US Department of State