Decoding the U.S. education system through an Indian lens

world through a lens

As a young student, I was quite eager to learn about how to study abroad. At that point, there were considerably fewer options for studying abroad and there was very little versatility in terms of courses. Since then, the education sphere has widened radically and studying abroad now allows students to explore opportunities based on their individual aspirations and skills. The evolution of this sector in a span of just a few years is truly incredible.

Catalytic components

Today, with every enrollment season, we witness a fresh batch of students moving abroad for higher education and that number is increasing rapidly. In the 2015-16 academic year, 1,043,839 international students studied at U.S. universities, according to the recently released 2016 Open Doors Report – and that number has steadily increased over the last 10 years. So why are international students flocking to the U.S. in ever increasing amounts?

The Open Doors report cited these reasons as:

  1. Aggressive recruitment by institutions
  2. Growth of the middle class
  3. Increase in the institutional support staff
  4. Difficulty in getting admissions in top universities in students’ home country

The above are merely an aggregate of reasons for all countries, so I decided to delve deeper to find India-specific details. The IIE Open Doors report found that there was a whopping +24.9% increase in the growth of Indian students seeking higher education in the U.S., which is a record high of 165,918 in the academic year 2015-16.

Applying the Indian filter

Experts from the education field agree to the contributing factors listed by the IIE report, but they feel there are other elements that drive this growth. Sandipa Bhattacharjee, Head of English & Counselor, UG Admissions at Chinmaya International Residential School in Coimbatore, feels that Indian schools themselves play a big role. She explains, “The growth of Indian students moving to the U.S. is also because of the eye-opening experiences provided by some international schools in India, especially schools following IB curriculum, and to some extent even schools that deliver the IGCSE curriculum, which encourage experiential learning and research.”

Ms. Bhattacharjee also highlighted an important aspect that is closely interlinked with the education system in India: competition. She elaborates, “Considering the competitive environment in India, getting selected on the merit of their qualifications is rewarding, and in turn lucrative compared to others whose futures depend upon performance in the entrance test. In short, peer pressure has a big role to play in this process.”

Peer pressure is a key reason for students to look to the U.S. for education prospects, but prestige of the institution also largely drives this growth. A degree from a top U.S. university is valued more in the job market, and this propels students to look at education options outside of their home turf.

Is the U.S. still the ultimate destination for higher education?

There are mixed responses to this question, as other countries such as Canada, Australia and the U.K. are stepping up and becoming more popular. Here’s what Geeta Jayanth, Head of High School and Guidance Counselor, Bangalore International School had to say: “The U.S. still continues to be a hot destination for students as it is known for providing quality education, research facilities, work opportunities, and is also considered a safe haven for international students. However, over the last 2-3 years, I see a shift in focus towards [other] international educational destinations.”

The recent U.S. presidential elections have led to Indian media reporting apprehensions among some students looking at U.S. higher education. U.S. universities have stepped in quickly to reassure aspiring students, and while there has been no impact on the education policy yet, everyone is keeping a close watch to see what could be the next move.

Ms. Bhattacharjee also expressed her reaction to the news, “I feel that college admissions for Indian students may not be affected immediately – for two years at least. We need to see how the policies affect the average Indian. Ultimately, the universities do want international students at the end of the day. Probably, there will be a desire for these students to come back to serve in India.”

Emerging trends

While political and financial shifts are known to make or break any sector, they also end up giving birth to new trends through widening the options and letting the masses select the best alternative. This is exactly what has happened with the education system as well.

Ms. Jayanth shares her view on this change, “I see a healthy trend in the spectrum of academic streams chosen by Indian students. A few years ago, engineering was the hot favorite. Parents would not consider investing in their ward’s education if it was not for STEM or business programs. But now, I see parents opening up and ready to fund students for programs like visual arts, film study, journalism, international relations, culinary science, etc.”

“There definitely seems to be a desire to find out what is one’s calling and not just wanting to jump on to the engineering or medicine bandwagon. Overall, there is some sense of individuality and I find students encouraging each other, talking to parents of their friends, to help each other on to the path of their calling”, Ms. Bhattacharjee added.

The education sector has come a long way and I have witnessed this evolution at a personal level. Teamed with adaptability and dynamism, this sector is only set to grow even further in different dimensions. Indian students who often opt for traditional education streams are now exploring new terrains.

Traditionally, Indians are hardwired to be aspirational and encouraged to dream big. This cardinal rule applies to getting a good education that will transpire into a well-paying job. With such rewarding prospects and a promising future ahead, it is quite clear through these years of growth rates why the U.S. has become – and will continue to be – the top destination for education.

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