Rashmi Chaudhary’s parents had given her the option of applying to top US colleges for her undergraduate studies after class XII. She spent hours online, scouring colleges late at night, spoke to friends and consultants.
But the Delhi girl who scored 90% in her Board exams eventually chose an environmental engineering programme at a private university near the capital.
She isn’t alone. The number of Indian undergraduate students in the US has dipped over the past decade, bucking a global trend that has seen China’s undergraduate students in America soar with an eight-fold increase, a new study by the New York-based education consultancy, World Education Services (WES) shows.
A much-criticized, but slowly adapting undergraduate education system in India may finally be convincing students to stay at home, experts say.
Only 13,059 Indian undergraduate students were enrolled in US varsities in 2012, a 3% dip from 13, 462 in 2004. Over the same period, Chinese undergraduate students in America skyrocketed from 8,030 to 74,516.
This dip is particularly stark, since the overall number of Indian students in the US has gone up between 2004 (80,466) and 2012 (100,270) -- despite a slight dip in 2011 -- driven by rising applicants to graduate programmes. Unlike undergraduate courses, US graduate programmes typically offer better scholarships and direct job prospects. But though they have always been more popular than undergraduate programmes among Indian students, an actual decrease in undergraduate students in the US, over almost a decade, is a first.
“What has driven this change is that Indian students are more discerning now than ever before, even at the age of 18,” education consultant Ashish Chabbra, who advises students seeking foreign educational opportunities said. “I increasingly meet Indian students who tell me they evaluated their options – in India and abroad – and concluded that they had good, undergraduate options here that gave them better value for money.”
Over this period, many Indian higher education institutions have started introducing key reforms in their undergraduate programmes, even though several overarching legislations to transform the country’s higher education remain stuck.
Several top private universities offer interdisciplinary programmes, and even major public institutions like Delhi University, have introduced a semester system that in tune with international standards.
“As Indian institutions have started pulling up their socks, the cost difference between colleges at an Ivy League university – with tuition fees of about US$ 40,000 a year – and colleges at varsities like DU – which cost about US$ 200 a year – has actually become a more important consideration,” Rajesh Prasad, a Mumbai-based education counsellor said.
That wasn’t the scenario a decade back.
With over 500 million youth under 25, India is headed towards becoming the world’s youngest major economy by 2020, and is – along with China – one of the biggest student markets targeted by universities in the US, UK, Australia, Canada and an increasing number of new countries in Europe, South Asia and even Israel.
Traditionally, Indian universities, and especially their undergraduate courses, have been rigid and often outdated, offering few options to students looking for multidisciplinary programmes. This lack of flexibility, coupled with a growing section of the population that could afford American education, led to an increase in Indian undergraduate students applying to the US in the first decade after economic liberalization in 1991.
By 2004, India sent 13,462 undergraduate students to the US – 17% of the total Indian students going to that country for higher studies. At that stage, China sent only 8,030 undergraduate students and a total 62,523 students to the US. But the past eight years have seen a dramatic reversal.
In 2012, China sent 157,558 students to the US – the highest from any foreign country – comfortably beating India. And unlike in 2004, when undergraduate students constituted an even smaller fraction (8%) of the overall Chinese student population in the US, in 2012, undergraduates numbered 74,516 – or 47% of the Chinese students currently at American academic institutions.
Chaudhary, the environmental engineering student who picked an Indian programme over US colleges, compared courses at Indian universities with programmes offered at top American varsities.
“I looked at Duke, Tufts, New York University, and even University of California schools. They were good, no doubt,” said the daughter of a medical doctor and a university teacher. “But strictly at the undergraduate level, I didn’t find anything I couldn’t get in India.”