For Indians rethinking college abroad, home has new degree of possibility

A new US administration, red tape, and the high costs have discouraged some applicants from abroad. But in India, many university students say they see a growing sense of opportunity right here, for their college years and beyond.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Students chat in-between classes at the Indian School of Business and Finance, a private college affiliated with the London School of Economics, in New Delhi, India.

When a study last fall showed the number of new foreign students arriving in the United States dipped slightly in 2016 – the first time in years – some analysts attributed the decline to the “Trump effect.”

The nationalistic and anti-foreigner undertones of then-candidate Donald Trump’s presidential campaign had weakened the international draw of the Made-in-America college education, experts said.

“We like to say that ‘things are in the air,’ and that’s the situation here,” says Sheikh Safwan, a sophomore at Ashoka University who thought seriously about heading to the United States himself. “There’s just this growing perception of uncertainty about the US, that it’s turning inward and that Trump’s direction is to discourage foreigners and put Americans first.”

The new US administration is just one reason more Indian students are staying home, however. “I can’t emphasize enough how much the cost of getting an education in the US is a discouragement,” says Mr. Safwan, a political science major, and visas are a major factor, too.

But so is “a changing perception about India,” he adds.

Ashoka is India’s fledgling experiment in building an American-style liberal-arts institution, with a mushrooming campus rising from farm fields in New Delhi’s neighboring Haryana state. Here, “there’s a growing sense of opportunities at home,” Safwan explains, heading out of the university’s main library to get to a morning class.

Indeed, what comes through from conversations with students is much more than a tarnishing of America’s attractiveness to foreign students. The bigger message is an awareness of their country’s growing potential – and a sense that the kinds of opportunities many young Indians once associated almost exclusively with the US are now increasingly available at home.

“I know I want to do something that helps build a better future for my country, and I think I can do that getting my education here,” Safwan says.

Shifting appeal

It’s a reversal of the push-pull dynamic that immigration experts have long cited to explain migration patterns: Now instead of feeling pushed away from India by a lack of future opportunities and pulled to the US by a big welcome mat and bright career options, Indian students increasingly seem to sense a slamming US door, and the tug of brightening horizons at home.

“Five or 10 years ago the US was pretty much the only option for students like us who wanted world-class interdisciplinary studies and a foot in the door to an attractive career, but now there are more options within India and in Asia,” says Kriti Krishan, one of Ashoka’s 300 Young India Fellows, a highly competitive program to train “change agents” for a new India.

Ms. Krishan’s friend Raashi Raghunath, another Young India Fellow, says it’s her sense that the bloom is off the once-pervasive attraction of a life and career outside India.

“The diasporic urge has subsided to some degree,” Ms. Raghunath says. “Twenty or 30 years ago it was the ultimate Indian dream, but now you can have that same lifestyle at a lower cost and without the separation from home. We all know of people who went to study abroad but then found they can get a better job staying here now.”

To some extent, that optimistic vision is a rarity – more the mindset of top-school students getting a multidisciplinary education than the reality of college-graduate employment today. India’s traditional universities send about 5 million graduates into the job market each year, and economists and education experts warn that the usual rote-learning model most have experienced leaves them ill-prepared for the 21st-century economy. Many, including hundreds of thousands of engineers, end up with jobs well below what they thought their degree promised.

But the mood seems brighter at Ashoka. Seated at an outdoor study table on a chilly morning, Taghunath and Krishan discuss the waning “Jhumpa Lahiri effect,” referring to the London-born American writer and daughter of Indian immigrants to the US who is known for her novels about the struggles of Indians adapting to life in America.

“People were really attracted to the lifestyle and possibilities that Jhumpa Lahiri wrote about,” Raghunath says. “But it seems Indians aren’t so fascinated by that any more. I feel that now more Indians think they can make those changes here.”

'Making India great again'

That kind of thinking is bolstered by a daily buzz in business publications, among some economists, and not least from the country’s can-do prime minister, Narendra Modi, touting the idea that “India’s time has come.”

Print and television headlines trumpeted the news when the London-based Center for Economics and Business Research announced its recent projection that India would leapfrog the United Kingdom and France in 2018 to become the world’s fifth-largest economy. More chest-thumping followed when the IMF issued a report estimating that, after a slowdown in 2017, India would rev up in 2018 and reclaim (from China) the mantle of the world’s fastest-growing economy.

To be sure, many students at Ashoka say they still like the idea of spending some time in the US, or the UK, or perhaps another overseas destination (Australia, New Zealand, or Singapore are frequently mentioned) before wrapping up academic careers. And indeed, the Institute of International Education study showing a drop in new international students entering the US in Fall 2016 also showed an overall increase in Indian students in the US, as thousands of graduates decided to stay on past their studies for internships or other post-graduate positions.

Still, preliminary numbers for Fall 2017 showed an even bigger drop in new foreign students arriving in the US: down 7 percent, compared to a smaller 3 percent decline in new foreign students a year earlier.

Some Indians long in the US are making a point of informing their home country about the shifts they see underway – echoing student Safwan’s feelings of “things in the air” about its dimming attraction.

In a recent opinion column in the Hindustan Times, provocatively titled “Trump is making India great Again,” the Indian-American technology entrepreneur and academic Vivek Wadhwa says that the American president’s “tirades against immigrants” are only the latest factor in the US encouraging entrepreneurs from countries like India to go home. Green-card limbo has left about 1.5 million skilled workers and their families in uncertainty, he estimates, with about one-third of them Indian.

Highlighting that Indians created 15.5 percent of Silicon Valley start-ups – more than the next four immigrant groups combined – Wadhwa says the US risks losing its high-tech edge if Indians and other foreign entrepreneurs opt to return home. Noting further that more and more he hears from Indian engineering students in the US that their “ultimate goal” is to return to India to work in high-tech, Wadhwa concludes, “America’s loss is India’s gain.”

Important impressions

Still, not everyone agrees that the US’s attraction for Indian students is about to flicker out.

Ashoka’s vice-chancellor, Pratap Mehta – who returned to India after an academic career in the US that included teaching at Harvard and NYU Law School – says he believes the concerns he hears about study in the US are exaggerated.

“I’d say the perception is jumping ahead of the actual situation, but certainly this perception of a less accessible, less welcoming society [in the US] is there,” Dr. Mehta says. “We hear of an anti-research sentiment taking hold under the Trump administration, of opportunities closing up for foreign students, and it all adds up to a sense that the excellence of a society that we took for granted may not be as secure as we thought,” he adds. “And to some degree we see young people developing a perception based on what they’re hearing, and acting on it.”

The degree to which that perception is taking hold becomes clear back at the outdoor study table where students Krishan and Raghunath are chatting. In their eyes, they explain, it’s India’s bright future that accounts for the US’s diminished attraction – but another student at the table, who’s clearly been eavesdropping, suddenly speaks up.

Yanking out his computer earbuds, the young man glares at the women and blurts out, “Why don’t you say what it really is? It’s Trump, it’s as simple as that.”

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