Even Chinese students can’t beat Indians at squeezing out the most from a US education

They are everywhere.
They are everywhere.
Image: Reuters/Keith Bedford
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The number of Indian students enrolled for higher education in the US has surged by 71% in just two years.

In January 2014, there were 105,426 Indians studying in that country, according to data released by the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) established under the US department of homeland security. This figure rose to 181,051 by November 2015.

Indian students in the US are value-seekers who try to minimise their cost of education, and maximise the potential for job and career advancement opportunities. Here are three broad factors that influence their decision-making processes and priorities:

1. Lower cost of education with master’s programmes

In 2015, 77% or nearly three out of four Indian students in the US were enrolled for master’s programmes, according to SEVIS. Compare that to the 30% figure for Chinese students. Indians are also less likely (only 10%) to enroll in the more expensive four-year bachelor’s degrees, compared to the Chinese (36%).

The average cost of a year’s tuition fees for international students may range between $23,800 (Rs16 lakh) at public colleges and universities to $32,400 at private institutions. Typically, American master’s programmes are of two years’ duration. However, one-year programmes providing low-cost pathways to the US are now on the rise. The demand for American master’s programmes is evident from the more than 210,000 applications received from Indian students in 2015.

Most Indian students fund their education through bank loans, while the Chinese use family and private resources. After a few years of decline in the rupee, students have now adjusted themselves to the new costs.

Besides, given the economic optimism in both the US and India, they are now more confident about the job prospects after studying abroad.

2. Longer work opportunity through OPT

Most Indian students are interested in engineering, computer science, and related “STEM”—science-technology-engineering—fields that provide an extended opportunity to work in the US through OPT (Optional Practical Training). In fact, 82% of Indians were enrolled in STEM programmes, while the figure was only 38% for the Chinese, according to SEVIS.

OPT allows international students to gain 12 months of experience after completion of the programme. However, those enrolled in STEM programmes are eligible for an additional 17 months of work experience. An October 2015 proposal from the US department of homeland security will further extend OPT by seven months for international students with degrees in STEM fields. This will allow them to work for three years after graduation without worrying about an H1-B work visa.

Unfortunately, this proposal is stuck in legal and political controversy. The extended work opportunity not only enriches students’ resumes but also helps them partially recover their education cost. However, recent cases of deportation of Indian students indicates heightened concerns over potential misuse of OPT for illegal part-time jobs.

3. Key destinations with more technology sector jobs

Indian students’ top destinations in the US are IT hubs. Nearly 40% of them are enrolled in just three states—California (30,823), Texas (21,590), and New York (17,711)—according to SEVIS. The number in California doubled from 15,327 in April 2014 to 30,823 in December 2015. The growth rates in Texas and New York are slower at 54% and 39%, respectively, compared to 59% nationwide.

California and Texas are home to a large section of the technology sector that continues to grow rapidly. In fact, among the top 25 US counties that have added the most number of technology sector jobs relative to the size of the local economy, four each are in California and Texas.

In sum, studying in the US requires substantial investment of time and money. Uninformed decisions or risky short-cuts could put a student’s future at stake. Gaining long-term value will require students to assess their strengths and align them with the diverse educational and career opportunities in the US.

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