by Lauren Dunn
A growing number of international college students choose U.S. schools
Yashwanth Palsu, 23, became the first in his family to complete his undergraduate degree when he graduated in Hyderabad, India, in spring 2020. He majored in computer science because of his bent toward math and because friends pointed out that an engineering degree would also require drawing. “You can do everything with a computer—it makes my life easier,” he said.
Palsu worked as a software engineer in India after graduation but wanted to attend graduate school in the United States. He thought about starting his U.S. studies in early 2021, but COVID-19 concerns convinced him to wait six months before applying. In fall 2021, he arrived at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kan., to work toward his master’s degree in computer science.
The number of graduate students from India enrolling in U.S. schools jumped by 430 percent from fall 2020 to fall 2021, according to a Council of Graduate Schools report released earlier this month. While some of that jump can be attributed to lower 2020 numbers due to COVID-19, the report noted that the number of graduate students arriving from China grew by only 35 percent. After years of trailing China as the leader of international students coming to the U.S., India took the top spot in first-time students pursuing master’s and certificate studies. Numbers for fall 2022 aren’t yet available, but early indicators point to a continued uptick: According to the U.S. Embassy in India, 82,000 student visas have been issued for Indian students this calendar year.
At Wichita State University, 457 students from India attended in fall 2019. That number dropped to 313 in spring 2020, but then continued to climb, slowly at first, to 387 in fall 2020. In fall 2021, when Palsu arrived in Kansas, 686 Indian students attended the school. The following spring, 983. Fall 2022 numbers will be released later this week.
Rod Bevan is a staff member with International Students Inc. in Wichita. At the beginning of each semester, the group offers a bus tour of Wichita for incoming students, and about 50 usually show up. This August, Bevan said 110 came, filling the bus and three vans that followed it. ISI doesn’t tally students by country, but through conversations, Bevan guessed as many as 90 percent of the students were from India.
Later that month, ISI hosted a furniture giveaway for new students looking to furnish their dorm rooms. Last year the group saw its largest-ever turnout when 200 students came to a local church to find what they needed. This year, ISI planned for 220, but still had to turn away 130 students due to a lack of resources. Again, Bevan said most of the students were from India.
International students accepted to a college can defer their enrollment by a year. This year’s influx of Indian students is likely a reflection of that policy, as many students waited until COVID-19 concerns lessened before setting out for U.S. schools. Others, like Yashwanth Palsu, waited to apply in the first place.
While applications from Indian students seem to have rebounded since pandemic drops, the number of Chinese students coming to the United States has not. Many Chinese students faced extra difficulties in coming to the United States for study or application purposes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Chinese travelers were required to quarantine in a third country before coming to the United States. The Biden administration created a student exception in spring 2021. As of 2021, China still leads in the total number of international students studying in the United States, though first-year students are applying at about half the pre-pandemic rate.
Some factors driving Indian students to apply to U.S. schools may stem from Indian culture and education availability.
Steve Edwards is a field staff member at Bridges International, a nonprofit that works with international students as they adjust to life at American campuses. Edwards, who has worked with South Asian students for years, said he has noticed a generational shift in Indian students. While students often more closely identified with their family’s culture and religion 20 years ago, globalization and international media have fostered a curiosity in many Indian students about other countries and cultures.
These students are “more self-assured in some sense,” Edwards said, “willing to step out and explore … and ask questions.” While international students from other countries often participate in language learning opportunities, Edwards said Indian students typically need less help with English. Instead, they look for cultural experiences and want to make connections with new friends.
That can be challenging for some: Harsha Vardhan, a computer science student studying for his master’s degree, arrived at Wichita State University in August. He said that due to large class sizes, all of his classes have been online. According to the Council of Graduate Schools’ report, schools saw 189 percent higher first-time enrollment in mathematics and computer sciences in fall 2021 than they experienced the year before.
Within Indian universities, postsecondary enrollment has quadrupled since 2001. But Dawn Michele Whitehead, vice president of the office of global citizenship for campus, community, and careers at the American Association of Colleges and Universities, said that so far, it’s not enough: “The population is so large that there’s just not the capacity.” In 2019, only 26.3 percent of Indians ages 18 to 23 were enrolled in postsecondary education in India. According to a 2019 study, that lack of capacity especially affects students pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree.
Whitehead hopes that Americans will recognize the benefits of international education programs, not just for international students, but for U.S. students. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for our students to prepare for work, life, and citizenship where the world is really the audience, whether they’re going to leave their home community or not.”
Palsu plans to graduate with his master’s in spring 2023. He works as a research assistant at the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State and hopes he can get a work visa and continue to work there after graduation. Ultimately, he thinks he will eventually return to India.
He knows many students who plan to study for their master’s degrees in the United States, including some who he said seem more prepared than he was. “When I came here, I didn’t really think much about the future and all,” he said. “Students who are planning to come here now, they seem to know everything. They know about on-campus jobs and assistantships; they are talking to professors. They are much more aware of the situation.”