Fewer Indian Students Are Going to the US This Year – Are Gun Laws to Blame?

Eight US states allow firearms to be carried on campus; Arkansas is set to join them in September 2017. In 24 others, each college can decide whether to allow firearms on its premises.

Credit: Skitterphoto/pixabay

Credit: Skitterphoto/pixabay

International students bring more than $32 billion a year to the US. Their numbers have steadily increased over the years and surpassed the one million mark for the first time in 2016. However, these numbers are expected to fall this year. A large number of colleges are reporting a decline in applications for admission from international students, including those from India and China. Some 47% of the international students in the US are from these two countries.

A survey of over 250 colleges by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) reported that 39% of colleges are seeing declines in applications from international students. However, another 35% reported an increase while 26% reported no change in applicant numbers.

International students at US colleges typically pay the full out-of-state tuition, which is significantly higher than that for in-state students. And for the most part, they do not receive any kind of financial assistance. Many institutions collect additional fees from them, which sometimes add up to several thousand dollars. In crude terms, they are cash cows and treated as such by many institutions. Therefore, it is not surprising that the possibility of fewer international students this year is becoming a cause for concern.

Indian students in the US

The drop in international students from India is expected to be significant this year. There is no other reason why MaryKay Loss Carlson, the chargé d’affaires of the US embassy in New Delhi would write a column in a leading newspaper to make the case for American universities and highlight their commitment and support for students from India. In her article, she notes that 166,000 Indians are already studying in the US, up from the 100,000 two years earlier. Given how popular the US already is as a higher education destination for Indian students, it seems odd that a US official would actually need to promote the US as one. There must be serious worries among US government officials that, whether or not the decline in the numbers of international student applications is severe or not, the “yield” – the actual number of students who will eventually enrol from among those who are offered admission – may be significantly lower than before.

According to the AACRAO survey, the drop in the numbers of international student applications is due to the following reasons:

  1. The perception that there is a rise in student visa denials at US embassies and consulates in China, India and Nepal;
  2. The perception that the US is now less welcoming to foreigners;
  3. Concerns that benefits and restrictions around visas could change, especially with respect to travel, re-entry after travel and employment opportunities; and
  4. The Executive Order travel ban might expand to include other countries.

What is interesting and perhaps expected in Carlson’s column is that she chooses to address only one reason why fewer Indian students may choose to study in the US this year – that the US is less welcoming to foreigners – and avoids discussing the other three. She writes (emphasis added):

US colleges and universities take pride in providing safe and welcoming environments. This is something that I, as a parent of a college freshman, care a great deal about; I came to New Delhi at the same time last summer that our daughter went to college, so I know what it’s like to be halfway around the world from your college student. Thankfully, US universities pay careful attention to the safety and welfare of their students. Many universities have come together to send a specific message to students through the #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign.

The passage above is meant to assure prospective students and their parents that it is safe to study and live in Donald Trump’s America. However, it appears that the safety and welfare aspects of students are linked and seem limited to college and university campuses and exclude the larger community where they are located. To Carlson’s credit, her article is honest and does not make exaggerated claims that, despite Trump, American society still welcomes students and that they should therefore not have to worry about their safety or welfare. Then again, in not making such claims, she remains evasive about the growing perception that American society has become less averse to overt displays of racism, and even violence, than before.

The issue of campus carry

Do US colleges and universities provide safe and welcoming environments as Carlson states? Officially, they do, of course. And yet, eight US states allow firearms to be carried on campus (Arkansas is set to join them in September 2017). In 24 others, each college can decide whether to allow firearms on its premises. This is apart from the fact that gun ownership laws are far more relaxed in the US than in any other Western nation and more people die from guns (whether in accidents, suicides, through domestic violence or mass shootings) than elsewhere.

The numbers are revealing. In 2015, there were 372 mass shootings, killing 475 people and wounded 1,870. More than 13,000 people were killed by firearms in 2015 and over 26,000 injured (excluding suicide). In many cases, shootings are racially-motivated and non-white immigrants, including Indians, have been targeted. Such incidents have increased since Trump took charge and the media is believed to be ignoring or downplaying them. This issue is important because a student’s life is not, and shouldn’t be, limited to the college campus.

Campus carry laws – which allow licensed gun owners to carry their weapons on public college and university campuses – is an important issue for potential students to consider. A report by researchers from Johns Hopkins University noted: “Increasing gun availability in campus environments could make far more common acts of aggression, recklessness, or self-harm more deadly and, thus, have a deleterious impact on the safety of students, faculty, and staff.” The adverse impact campus carry has on the learning environment is also a matter of serious concern. If universities and colleges are not immune from America’s unique gun culture, surely all claims of student safety/welfare, even within college and university campuses and especially of international students who ‘look different’, must be qualified.

Many Americans agree completely with the Second Amendment of the their Constitution, which provides for “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.” And then there are others who may or may not agree with the right to bear arms but are not particularly bothered by campus carry. For example, Christopher Ingraham acknowledges that the campus carry law is odd but concludes that it is a law that “makes supporters gleeful, opponents enraged and is ultimately of very little consequence.” His position conveys the idea that laws do not matter much in the case of campus carry since potential campus shooters will carry and use guns irrespective of the law.

Then there are those like Nicholas Kristoff who acknowledge both guns and gun laws as being problematic but take a more practical position: “We’re not going to eliminate guns in America, so we need to figure out how to coexist with them.” Kristoff has proposed a public health approach in which the goal could be more modest: of making guns smart and safe. 

A recent Rolling Stone article noted, “With few exceptions – notably, Texas – the public overwhelmingly opposes guns on college campuses (a recent poll in Florida puts opposition at 62 percent), as do a majority of chancellors, university presidents, parents, students, professors and, notably, campus police.” And yet, campus carry continues to spread through US states. The number of shootings on college campuses and lives lost do not present a pretty picture. In April, it was reported that 12 shootings had already been recorded in US schools and colleges in 2017.

Should prospective Indian students care?

Studying in the US is surely safer than driving on Indian roads, whether or not one is the driver. It is also more dangerous to breathe the air in our cities. However, with respect to higher education, the majority of our colleges and universities are so broken that students are awarded worthless degrees. Unemployability rates have remained at pitifully high levels irrespective of the discipline a student graduates in. Also, for the time being, we are simply not generating enough jobs for our young people.

Given such conditions, the option of heading to the US, the UK or elsewhere is an attractive one provided one can bear the costs or if one secures generous funding. Choosing to study in the US (or not to) due to concerns about racism or safety is, to that extent, a personal choice. At the same time, potential students should be informed about America’s gun culture and laws, too.

If there is a substantial decline in the number of Indian students who head to the US this year, it will not be so much due to safety and welfare issues, except perhaps in a few cases. The US may or may not still be the land of opportunities, but there is still the perception that there are more opportunities there than in India. The decline in student numbers will be due to the reasons that Carlson chose not to address: concerns about visa denials and uncertainty about changes in benefits and restrictions around visas with respect to travel and employment opportunities.

Pushkar is director at the International Centre Goa (ICG), Dona Paula.

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