Chasing the American Dream


The global economic crisis is hardly dissuading Indian students from chasing the great American dream. According to data released by the US embassy in India in August, student visa applications were up by 20% compared to last year. Indian students account for 15% of all international students in the US, according to Open Doors, which is published annually by the Institute of International Education (IIE).

So what draws Indian students to U.S. universities in droves?

“These universities provide cutting edge technology — by which I mean the latest in your field. For instance cloud computing is the next big thing on the internet. Columbia offers a comprehensive course in Cloud computing,” says Kunal Ghogale, an engineering graduate from Mumbai, who is studying Computer Science at Columbia University.

Shaival Sheth who joined University of California this fall to pursue a Masters of Science in Electrical Engineering says, “I chose USA because of the quality of advance coursework and research.”

Sushil Sukhwani, Director of Edwise Overseas Education Consultants in Mumbai, says: “The most important reason why students choose USA is that many of the top ranked schools in the world are located there. With quality education, and hands on latest technology and infrastructure, it becomes the most preferred option to study.”

The 2011 QS World University Rankings released recently ranked six U.S. universities in the top 10, including Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale. No Indian university made the list of top 200 universities.

Indian universities may flunk the global rankings, but the competition to get into coveted institutions of higher education remains one of the most arduous in the world. Too many students are vying for too few seats, generating cut-throat competition. This is one reason some Indian students turn to U.S. universities. “An average student putting in 5-6 hours of work can’t get in a top Indian university without a miracle. USA has 4,000 odd universities with at least half of them being top notch,” says Ghogale, who said he never bothered to apply to any Indian university at all.

Indian students are attracted by the support and infrastructure for sports and other extra curricular activities at U.S. institutions. By contrast, most Indian educational institutions are entirely dismissive of these activities and offer little support for them. “Playing your favorite sport alongside your study is something which has not been possible in India,” complains Sheth.

But study abroad comes with a steep price, one well outside the reach of most Indian students. “USA is relatively expensive when we directly compare the costs involved with the Indian higher education system, but I think the amount of facilities given to students at any university in the US demands that cost,” says Sheth, who is relying on family support for his U.S. education.

Devdutt Trivedi, who is pursuing a Master of Arts in Visual and Critical Studies (MAVCS) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago received a $5,000 scholarship from his institute, and relies on his family for the balance. He still doesn’t see it as an economical option and plans to meet his expenses by working after class hours.

“People from cultured backgrounds prepare to invest in education instead of say a car or new house,” he says, explaining why he invested so heavily. He said he always wanted to go to a university that combined film and art theory with practice. Unfortunately, such an approach was not available to him in India.

Sukhwani, who counsels students aspiring to study in the US, says the US is far more economical option compared to other countries, many state universities have low tuition, ranging from $ 25,000 to $ 30,000 for each program. In addition, he says, “USA education becomes more affordable due to financial aid offered to students in the form of scholarships.”

However Ghogale, whose father has taken out a loan to fund his studies, said: “Though financial aid is available at many universities, the overhead costs like living expenses and airfare can be intimidating.”

Several educational consultants have set up shop across India promising to help students navigate the admission and financial aid process, guiding them with everything from shortlisting the schools to writing their statement of purpose essay. They typically charge students between $300 to $400. The United States-India Educational Foundation (USIEF), an advising center affiliated with the US Department of State, also assists students with information about U.S. higher education institutions.

While the downturn in the US economy is giving pause to some students, it has not so far put a dent in the educational appeal of the U.S.

“It is a worry because in the job market things turn as the economy turns. With spending so much of my parents’ money, I expect to return with at least the same amount as I put in. In this case, I will be hard pressed to find a job, which under normal circumstances is easily available,” Ghogale said.

Sukhwani echoes similar concerns, saying that the financial crisis has affected students aspiring to study in US, as some of the universities have reduced scholarships and assistantships.

But the students remain upbeat about their decision, saying U.S. universities offer flexibility and freedom in their educational pursuits unavailable in India. “We have been offered about 30-40 courses out of which there are certain ones you have to take, but others we can pick and choose according to our liking,” says Ghogale.

Unlike Indian universities which offer virtually no flexibility in course content, says Sheth, “I have a wide variety of courses to choose from, across other departments too,” says Sheth. “I expect the experience to be truly world-class. A grueling but an extremely exciting experience.”


Rank  Institution  City State    Int’l   Students   Enrollment
1 University of Southern California Los Angeles CA 7,987 34,824
2 University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign Champaign  IL 7,287 43,723
3 New York University  New York  NY 7,276 43,208
4 Purdue University – Main Campus   West Lafayette IN   6,903 41,051
5 Columbia University  New York  NY  6,833 24,188
6 University of Michigan – Ann Arbor Ann Arbor MI 6,095 41,674
7  University of California – Los Angeles  Los Angeles   CA 5,685 39,750
8  Michigan State University  East Lansing  MI  5,358 47,278
9 University of Texas – Austin Austin  TX  5,265 50,995
10 Boston University  Boston  MA  5,172 31,499
Source: Open Doors, International Institute of Education

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