Friday, October 08, 2004

no longer dreaming of america

In India and China, far fewer students consider the U.S. the best place to go

By Paul Mooney and Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in October 2004).

Sun Zhi graduated from China's prestigious Tsinghua University in 2002, one year after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Yet despite getting a scholarship from an American university, the computer-science major was turned down for a visa by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

"It's all because of 9/11," he says with a trace of anger in his voice. "Had I applied one year earlier, I'd have easily gotten a visa."

Rejected twice, Mr. Sun eventually gave up his dream of studying in the United States. "Many of my classmates have changed their plan to go to American universities to earn a Ph.D. due to the tightening of visa approvals," he says. "Since it has become so difficult, we think it's a waste of time to apply."

For more and more international students like Mr. Sun, studying in America seems to be a fading hope -- and a fading interest. China and India, which supply more than one-third of all graduate students to American universities, are being watched particularly closely by worried admissions officers in the United States.

The number of students from China applying to American graduate programs for the fall 2004 term plunged 45 percent from last year, according to a survey by the Council of Graduate Schools released in September. India experienced a 30-percent drop. (About 80 percent of Chinese and Indian students in the United States are enrolled in graduate school.) The total number of international graduate-student applications fell by 28 percent.

While concerns over visa delays and rejections seem to be the main reason for the dip in applications to American graduate schools, other factors come into play as well. The stagnant U.S. economy has shrunk the available pool of financial aid for graduate students and lessened students' prospects of finding good jobs in the United States after they earn their degree. China has pumped more money into its own graduate programs in recent years, making the idea of studying at home more appealing to students. In India, a booming economy has led many recent college graduates into the work force instead of to graduate school.

Competition Grows

One trend particularly troubles American universities: increased competition from other countries. Australia, Britain, and Canada are leading the pack, although some Asian and South Pacific countries, such as New Zealand, South Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore, also have their eyes on becoming regional hubs for international students.

"Earlier the default choice for most top students was the U.S.," says a spokesman for Infozee, a New Delhi-based visa-counseling center for students. "It isn't anymore."

While American institutions tend to market themselves individually or in small groups, other English-speaking countries that have largely public university systems use umbrella organizations to promote all of their institutions through university fairs and advertisements. By using a one-stop-shopping approach, they say, they make applying easier and less intimidating for students.

"The impression the U.S. universities give is that they aren't that interested in getting foreign students," says Pragyat Singh, office manager of Middlesex University in India, which helps students seeking admission to the British university.

"We, on the other hand, provide door-to-door service," says Mr. Singh. "We have a number of offices in India to counsel students right here. Students know me, they can meet me and sort out all their problems. Besides, I can take a spot decision. We are like an education shop and help with everything from accommodations to scholarships. I know of no U.S. universities that do so much."

Each competitor has also learned to play up its strengths. Australia and Canada stress that tuition and cost of living there are significantly less expensive than in the United States. Britain and New Zealand note that certain of their degrees take less time to earn than they would at an American institution. Canada and Britain have experimented with less-restrictive work regulations for students or recent graduates, which are more lenient than what the United States offers.

Boon to Canada

Students have paid attention. Qu Yuan, a sociology major who graduated from Peking University this year, says many of her classmates are turning away from American universities.

"Canada is cheaper and the U.K. requires a shorter time to get a Ph.D. degree," she says, "so many of my classmates are considering these countries."

Anecdotal evidence from admissions officers and academic organizations suggests that fewer international students may enroll in American universities this fall, while early signs indicate that the United States' main competitors expect to see an increase in international enrollments.

In Canada, universities and colleges say that applications from international students for both undergraduate and graduate schools were up for the fall 2004 term, although some campuses reported a significant drop in the number of applications from China.

University officials attribute the overall increase partly to September 11 fallout, but believe that active recruiting has been a bigger influence.

Six years ago the Canadian government created a marketing arm for colleges and universities to promote themselves jointly, and at least five major federally run programs put information into the hands of potential international students. The country has also pumped millions of dollars into university research, which has helped lure international graduate students. The government recently created 2,000 full scholarships for Ph.D. students and another 2,000 for master's students.

"There's a huge infusion of money. ..." says Frieda Granot, dean of graduate studies at the University of British Columbia, one of Canada's big research institutions. "That helps with recruiting the best students." Her institution's international-student enrollments have risen rapidly since 2001. "Last year it was almost unmanageable," she says.

Deepinder Singh, who recently graduated from University College of the Cariboo, opted for a degree in computer science in Canada after checking out Australia and the United States. He says he found that both the quality of education and the quality of life in Canada were uniformly good.

"Why not live in the best place?" he says. "I've found that the people who live here take the time to be friendly and listen to you." Plus, he says, studying in Canada was more affordable than other countries would have been.

Britain also expects international enrollments to rise this year. The number of students applying from China rose 4.5 percent for the fall 2004 term, to 8,261, according to the Universities & Colleges Admissions Service, the central organization through which all applications are processed. The number of applicants from India rose 8.5 percent, to 2,135.

Working Hard

Simon Willis, director of the international office at the University of York, which has seen a steady growth in international students in recent years, says many universities "have been working very hard to build their profiles. We visit countries that we recruit in, to build links with institutions."

Like Canada, Britain has also brought a more coordinated approach to international-student recruitment in recent years. In 1999 the government created the Prime Minister's Initiative, which brought universities and the government together to market higher education in Britain, and created a single Web site through which students can research academic programs, application procedures, and financial aid. It is currently developing an online scholarship database.

Australia's success in marketing itself as a higher-education destination to prospective students over the past 10 years is a matter of record. Among the English-speaking world's major education exporters, it has posted some of the past decade's heftiest gains, with Chinese and Indian student numbers driving much of the strongest growth.

Australian recruiters speak of their marketing style as a mix of strategies, including advertising, education events, Web-marketing, and, most importantly, aggressive follow-up for students who express interest in studying there.

According to IDP Education Australia, the umbrella organization responsible for marketing Australian universities abroad, the number of students from China grew 18 percent, to 26,400, between 2003 and 2004. The number of students from India rose 21 percent, to 14,870.

Abhilash Puljal, an Indian student who earned an undergraduate degree in commerce at DePaul University in 2001, opted for graduate school in Australia. He says the fallout from September 11, in which prospective employers in the United States were reluctant to hire him despite a one-year work option he had on his visa, persuaded him to look elsewhere.

"The world is moving to the Asia-Pacific region anyway, isn't it?" says Mr. Puljal, who now lives in Australia, where he expects to complete his master's degree in international business studies later this year at the University of Sydney.

Visa-issuance statistics from the State Department show a significant decline since 2001, when 32,867 visas were issued to Chinese students and 28,344 were issued to Indian students. As of mid-September 2004, those figures were 25,310 and 21,755 respectively. Given the ever-growing competition for foreign students, will the United States ever hit 2001-level figures again? "I would hate to have to predict the future with regard to student-visa applications," says an official at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, who did not want to be identified. "All told, I would think that we have passed the high-water mark."

Changes at Home

While students in China and India are looking elsewhere to study, that shift doesn't fully explain why fewer are interested in studying in the United States.

Many students in China are simply choosing to stay home. In recent years, the government has pumped a great deal of money into graduate education in the sciences, so that students who may not qualify for admissions to a top-tier American university are more likely to consider continuing their studies in China. The Ministry of Education reports that 330,000 Chinese students intend to enroll in graduate programs in China in 2004, up 20 percent from last year.

"There is no doubt that there are greater opportunities in China for both undergraduate- and graduate-level study than what existed a few years ago," says the U.S. Embassy official. "Furthermore, the quality of education offered at Chinese colleges and graduate schools has also improved, narrowing the differences between what is available locally and internationally."

Media reports have also shown that Chinese people returning home with graduate degrees are finding that their foreign credentials are no longer as valuable on the Chinese job market as they used to be. "This is causing a shift in the economic calculations about the value of a foreign degree," the official said.

India's situation is somewhat different. A robust economy, rather than improved graduate schools, has proved to be the main lure in keeping students from leaving.

India's economic liberalization of the early 1990s has boosted consumerism, leading to an increase in the number of restaurants, malls, multinational fast-food outlets, and mobile-phone companies. The boom in the outsourcing of IT services and customer-relations call centers means that high-paying jobs with upward mobility are readily available for young, inexperienced graduates.

The Job Factor

With all these options students are looking to get ahead in their careers rather than continuing to study. "Earlier if you didn't do a master's degree it was seen as a negative, but now parents are not averse to sending their kids out to the workplace," says Vijaya Khandavilli, educational adviser at the U.S. Educational Foundation of India.

K.N. Gupta, an engineering professor who oversees the training and placement division at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology's Bombay branch, has seen this play out in the institute's classrooms.

About 40 percent of the institute's graduates went abroad this year, which was significantly less than in previous years, he says. Next year he expects only 20 percent to go overseas.

"It's not that they are not getting visas," he says. "It's just that there are now a lot of technology companies, including MNC's [multinational companies], who have offices here, and decent jobs here are now almost guaranteed."

"The top, top students still go," he adds, "but the next level, who are also very good, just stay on here to work."

A richer India has also meant that more parents are paying for their children's education abroad. That means the absolute numbers of Indian students going abroad is climbing, but the new applicants are looking for cost-effective universities rather than chasing scholarships. That has been a boon to Australia and Canada.

Ms. Khandavilli says the U.S. economic slump has also affected Indian students. American universities have had to tighten their budgets and reduce the amount of financial aid they offer. Most Indians going to the United States rely on scholarships, and conventional wisdom is that a hefty scholarship can influence the visa department to look kindly on a student's application.

"Doctoral students are still getting funding, but scholarships have declined for master's students," says Ms. Khandavilli. "And U.S. students are also competing for these funds as, due to the economic downturn there, students are choosing to stay on" in school rather than enter the job market.

The weak economy in the United States also discourages students from going there to study because it prompts worries about their job prospects after graduation.

"The primary reason people went to the U.S. was because they had the chance of settling down there to the big American dream," says the Infozee spokesman. "That's looking pretty tough these days, and while there is a global economic downturn, the one in the U.S. is much more hyped."

Not That Bad?

While the United States may never regain the market share it once had, it is unlikely to lose its dominance, especially at the graduate level, according to educational advisers abroad. About 600,000 international students currently study in the United States. Britain enrolls less than half that figure. Australia and Canada enroll 130,000 and 106,000 respectively. (Canadian figures do not include the estimated 150,000 to 200,000 students in vocational schools or studying English as a second language in short-term programs.)

Two reasons why these advisers think the United States will remain the most popular choice among students are the quality and quantity of its academic programs, particularly in the sciences.

Thus, despite the perceived difficulties, America remains the top choice for many Chinese and Indian students, even if this means delaying their studies for a year or two until they feel it is easier to get a visa.

"Lots of people still want to go to the United States compared with other countries," says Julie Zhu, a Chinese student who hopes to study journalism in the United States, adding an often-heard claim that England and Australia don't offer Chinese students much in the way of scholarships, a major concern of many who often cannot afford the high cost of overseas study. "The U.S. is the biggest place offering financial aid, and U.S. universities have a better reputation."

There are a few positive signs already on the horizon for American universities. The number of student visas issued in China this year is above last year's figure, although the number issued to Indian students is down.

The New Oriental School, famous for its Graduate Record Examination cram classes, says student numbers were down last year, but are increasing again. During the Chinese Spring Festival break, classes were packed.

"There were 300 students in my class," says Ms. Zhu. "And everyone was on time all the time."

Karen Birchard, David Cohen, and Aisha Labi contributed to this article.