Riding the High Tide: India Has Surpassed China as the Leading Sender of Foreign Students to the United States, So Why Are Its Students Increasingly Drawn to U.S. Universities?

Article excerpt

When 24-year-old Anil Mukherji joined Louisiana State University as a postdoctoral research assistant in chemistry in 1957, he was one of four Indians in the school. More than four decades later, in 2003, LSU's Indian Student Association, one of the largest student communities in Baton Rouge, claims to have 465 members.

Indians have always viewed the United States as the Mecca of higher education, so it is no surprise that the numbers of Indian students pursuing their degrees at American institutions has dramatically increased over the years. Though traditional English institutions such as the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge fascinated the educated elite in the former British colony, opportunities for research-oriented subjects in the math and science fields have long attracted Indians to American universities.

According to the International Institute of Education (IIE), India's enrollment rates have followed the larger Asian trend over the past 40 years, with several thousand students coming each year to pursue higher education. The numbers of Indian students attending U.S. institutions of higher education first peaked in 1992 and then gradually declined in 1996. However, since 1997, the number of students has dramatically increased. With a massive boost of 22 percent in 2002, or a total of 66,836 students out of 582,996 international students, India has surpassed China as the leading sender of foreign students to the United States for the first time. In 2002, China sent 63,211 students, an increase of only 6 percent.

"Since the Kennedy days, the U.S. was like a dreamland for us. To go to graduate school here was the coolest thing to do at that time," says Samir Banerji, an engineer with Caterpillar Inc., and a 1967 alumnus of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, India (see sidebar).

Armed with a full scholarship from Stony Brook University in metallurgy and metal sciences, Banerji finished his doctorate in 1973 and went on a nine-month stint as a visiting scientist to Italy before returning to the United States as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania.

Like Banerji, Mukherji had similar reasons for continuing his education in the United States, in addition to receiving a fellowship from his professor at LSU.

"American education is more application-oriented. The Indian system was a bad copy of the British and quite irrelevant," says Mukherji, a former executive at Xerox.

THE NEW GENERATION

The reasons for coming to study in the United States are the same for Indian students--even 40 years later. Students have high expectations of an American education and expect to gain more opportunities as well as a new perspective.

In 2001-2002 the U.S. Education Foundation in India (USEFI) made approximately 320,000 contacts via phone, e-mail and in-person visits with aspiring students who were interested in going to the United States. Indian students have been mostly undeterred by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and in the past two years, approximately 20,000 students were issued F-1 or student visas by the U.S. Embassy.

"The variety and flexibility of the American education system is the most appealing factor to Indian students," says Dr. Vijaya Khandavilli, an adviser with USEFI. "Engineering, math, business and computer science are the most popular fields of study but there are some who are interested in off-beat programs like film production and communications."

Though most applications are for graduate schools, Khandavilli points out that the number of applicants for undergraduate studies is slowly rising.

"A four-year education is very expensive, and funding is difficult at the undergraduate level. Besides, many parents are still apprehensive about sending their 17-year-olds to far-off destinations," Khandavilli says. …