At US universities, record numbers of Indian students seek brighter prospects — and overseas jobs

Pranay Karkale is spending years of savings and $60,000 in student loans to pursue a master’s degree in the United States, yet he considers himself lucky. At home in India, it’s common to hear about families selling off their land to send children to universities overseas.

Karkale was willing to do whatever it took once he got into Johns Hopkins University. A degree from a prestigious U.S. college, he believed, would open doors to a better job and higher pay than he would find in India.

“I don’t feel like I would have gotten the same level of education that I get here,” said Karkale, 23.

Historic numbers of students from India are studying at foreign universities as a fast-growing, aspirational generation of young people looks for opportunities they can’t find at home. India estimates 1.5 million students are studying at universities elsewhere — an eightfold increase since 2012 — with no country attracting more than the U.S.

It represents a loss for India, with many students seeing universities as stepping stones for careers overseas, but a boon for American schools. As record-setting enrollment by students from China has ebbed, U.S. universities have turned to India as a new source of full-price tuition payments.

India’s economy is growing, but joblessness remains persistent even for college graduates. Jobs are being created in fields such as construction and agriculture, but they don’t meet the demands of a newly educated workforce, said Rosa Abraham, an economist at the Azim Premji University.

“I think many young people today feel like the economy isn’t meeting their potential, their aspirations, and so they want to try their chances abroad if they can,” she said.

India’s own higher education system is also short on capacity. As its population surges, competition for admission to India’s top universities has become frenzied. Acceptance rates at some elite Indian universities have fallen as low as 0.2%, compared to 3% at Harvard University and 4% at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lokesh Sangabattula, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in materials science at MIT, is among many hoping to land jobs inside the U.S. There’s little demand for materials scientists in India, he said, and at best he figures he could become a professor. It’s a similar story for engineers, which India generates in huge numbers without the industry to employ them.

“We produce engineers whose degrees don’t have value, so people leave the country,” he said.

Universities in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom also are seeing surging interest, but none more than the U.S., where universities enroll nearly 269,000 students from India. With that number soaring, including a 35% increase in the 2022-23 academic year, India is on the verge of replacing China as the largest international presence on U.S. college campuses.

The vast majority are coming for graduate programs, often in science, math and engineering — fields that have faced persistent labor shortages in the U.S. — though undergraduate numbers also are rising as India’s middle class expands. One selling point is the chance to work in America for up to three years after graduating, a benefit provided by the U.S. government and known as optional practical training.

For Karkale, staying in India never felt like an option. As an undergraduate in India, he became interested in engineering management, which merges engineering and leadership skills. It’s a growing industry in the U.S. and Europe, but Karkale, who is from the western Indian state of Maharashtra, couldn’t find any master’s programs in India.

At Hopkins, he’s gaining professional work experience arranged by the school, a rarity at Indian universities, he said. Ultimately he wants to return to India, but the most appealing jobs are elsewhere. After graduating, he plans to work in the U.S. for at least a year or two.

If he could find the right job in India, he added, “I would hop right back.”

The surge has helped the bottom line of American colleges, which charge international students higher tuition rates. It comes as many Americans sour on higher education, citing concerns about student debt and the perception of liberal bias at universities. The number of students coming from China has been declining as a result of chilly political ties and a stagnant Chinese economy.

In India, American universities have become a common presence at college fairs. Many are spending big to gain name recognition in India, and they are fanning farther across the country to recruit in smaller cities and towns, where demand to study abroad has been rising.

Still, for the vast majority of India’s young people, an overseas education remains out of reach. The cost of a U.S. education is a fortune for most, and Indian banks have scaled back on student loans in response to high default rates.

Even for those who can afford it, the student visa process presents roadblocks. At the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, student applicants are routinely turned away.

On a recent Friday, Daisy Cheema slumped her shoulders and sighed as she left the embassy. She spent weeks preparing for a visa interview after getting accepted to Westcliff University, a for-profit college in California. She hired an agency to help, but her visa was rejected with no reason provided; she just received a slip of paper saying she could reapply.

Cheema, 22, hoped to gain work experience in the U.S. before returning to India to support her family. Her parents, who own a gas station in the northern Indian state of Punjab, were going to pay with their savings.

“I feel terrible right now,” said Cheema, holding back tears. “But I will prepare more and try again. I’m not giving up.”

America’s shift toward Indian students is visible on campuses like the University of Texas, Dallas, where enrollment from China fell from about 1,200 to 400 over the past four years. Meantime, enrollment from India grew from about 3,000 to 4,400.

Rajarshi Boggarapu came to the U.S. to get a master’s degree in business analytics and chose UT-Dallas in part because of its large Indian population. He borrowed $40,000 for tuition, which he sees as an investment in his future.

“We value education more than anything else back in India,” he said.

Like many U.S. universities, Johns Hopkins is deepening ties with India. It has hosted Indian diplomats to discuss health and engineering partnerships and is part of a new task force formed by the Association of American Universities to promote exchange with India.

Before he came to the U.S., Karkale had concerns about the political climate, but the campus made him feel welcome. When he couldn’t return home for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, he was surprised to find a campus celebration that drew hundreds of students and staff.

In a campus gym adorned with colorful flowers and lamps, Karkale watched as student groups performed dances to a mix of new and old Indian music. There was a Hindu prayer ceremony. And when the dance floor opened up, Karkale joined in.

“It was a memorable evening,” he said. “It made me feel right at home.”


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