India and China already compete over global influence and natural resources. Here’s a new area of rivalry—the number of students each has in America.
From 2008-12, India sent 168,034 students to the US, accounting for 15% of the total foreign students studying there, according to a new Brookings Institution report. This number is second only to China’s 284,173 students enrolled in various programs in US universities during the same period.
The reasons students from the two countries opt to head to the US are different, though. Most Indian students arrive in the US to complete a graduate degree. Very few—only 10%— attend an undergraduate or doctoral program. On the other hand, 44% of Chinese students head to the US as soon as they finish secondary school and pursue research more often than Indian students.
As for choice of disciplines, technical programs, known as STEM (short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are a clear favorite for Indian students. Around 32% of Indian students are enrolled in engineering programs, compared with just 17% of Chinese students. In fact, Hyderabad is the top source of STEM students in the US with 20,840 students (though the city’s figures might be inflated by other factors). Overall, non-technical programs are more popular among Chinese students, with 61% of them enrolling in non-tech subjects like business and marketing.
Indian students’ love of technical subjects isn’t surprising, given India’s thriving outsourcing industry. The country has more computer programmers than Silicon Valley.
However, obtaining an education may not be the sole reason Chinese students flock to the US. After completing their education in the US, most Chinese students don’t want to move back to China, thanks to a cocktail of adverse political and social factors back home. They wish to stay and work in the U.S. first—and this temporary stay often translates to a longer or a permanent stay. A study by consultant Bain & Co. shows that around 60% of wealthy Chinese want to leave China.
Attitudes in India are markedly different. Indians graduating abroad aren’t as apprehensive about coming back to the country due to political or social considerations. In fact, when it comes to India, it seems that a cycle of reverse brain drain is slowly kicking in. Many Indians are returning home to work in investment banks, consultancy firms and large media organizations.