Declining Numbers Show Indian Students are Wary of Heading to Trump's US

An anti-immigrant rhetoric and a possible lack of jobs, along with steeper visa fees are scaring off Indian students from applying to US universities.

Immigrant students graduate at a university in the US. Credit: Reuters/Files

Immigrant students graduate at a university in the US. Credit: Reuters/Files

New York/New Delhi: Like many other Indians, Ranjit Lal had originally planned to go to the US to study further. But then he changed his mind. “I chose Canada over the US because with Donald Trump in the White House there are too many uncertainties about US immigration policies. I can’t bet a future on winning a H-1B visa lottery versus good opportunities in Canada,” said Ranjit Lal, who has applied to McGill University in Montreal.

“I want to do my Master’s in engineering in McGill. Canada is an immigrant-friendly country. That’s what is most important to me,” added Lal.

Another student, a 22-year-old from Mumbai, said she scrapped her plans to apply to law schools in the US because she was concerned about getting an H1B visa after graduating – which would have made getting a job as a lawyer especially tricky since she would not have been able to practice in India.

International students, and not just from India, are backing out from applying to the US and looking at other alternatives, because the increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration are dampening enthusiasm among students for studying in the US.

A new survey reveals that four in ten US colleges have experienced a sharp decline in international applicants for the Fall 2017 term. Trump’s travel ban and hardline immigration policies have put off students from the Middle East and Muslim majority countries — that’s not surprising. But, initial findings of the survey also point to a decline in applicants from India and China, which together provide nearly half of the US’s international students.

More than three-quarters of institutions surveyed expressed concern about future enrollment. “Nearly 40% of responding US institutions are reporting a drop in international student applications, particularly from students in the Middle East,” showed the findings from a survey of 250 schools by six higher-education groups, including the Institute of International Education (IIE).

Indeed, the most telling decline in applicants came from the Middle East, with universities reporting a 39% decrease in undergraduate applications and a 31% decrease in graduate applications from the region.

Indian numbers dipping

But Indian students, who have been heading to the US in ever increasing numbers in recent years, are now wary of going to American institutions. According to the survey, 26% of universities reported a decline in undergraduate applications from India, in addition to a 15% decline in India’s graduate applications.

Malavika Bhatia, an education consultant at Ed Sanctuary in Delhi, is expecting a greater drop in undergraduate applicants for next year. Bhatia told The Wire, “It’s early in the season to compute right now but I would say two out of every, say, ten students have changed their mind over the past year.”

She has also gotten used to dealing with parents panicking about the recent racist attacks against Indians. Bhatia said, “Nearly every parent has this question [about safety]. Which is natural I think, but I just assure them that it’s not as much [of a concern] on the coasts and in liberal spaces.”

Wim Wiewel, president of Portland State University in Oregon, said his school saw a 37% reduction in applications from India for the new school year.

“I’d say the rhetoric and actual executive orders are definitely having a chilling effect,” said Wiewel, who travelled to Hyderabad to meet with ten students already admitted to his school’s graduate engineering programme.

People listen during a vigil in honour of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian immigrant who was recently shot and killed in Kansas, at Crossroads Park in Bellevue, Washington, on Sunday. Credit: Reuters

People listen during a vigil in honour of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian immigrant who was recently shot and killed in Kansas, at Crossroads Park in Bellevue, Washington, on Sunday. Credit: Reuters

Wiewel’s trip to Hyderabad came soon after residents of the city held funeral services for computer engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who was killed by Adam W. Purinton, who yelled “get out of my country,” before opening fire on two Indians at Austin’s Bar and Grill in a Kansas City suburb. A second Indian engineer Alok Madasani was also injured in the Kansas hate crime along with a white man who tried to stop the gunman.

“I tried to reassure Indian students that the university’s environment is still very safe and very welcoming to international students,” said Wiewel.

It’s 2017, and not a month goes by in the US without reports of hate violence targeting Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, South Asians, African Americans, Jews and Latinos. There is no question that Trump’s victory has brought the bigots out of the woodwork. In all, the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented a record 900 hate crimes, a lot of them in universities since the November election of Trump.

Aware of this, education professionals in the US are coming up with ways to woo Indians back to the US. Soon after the Kansas shooting, Marie Whalen from Whitworth University and Syed K. Jamal, CEO of Branta, a US-based company that provides support to Indian students, authored an ‘Open Letter from the United States to India’ telling students “#youbelonghere”.

Jamal told The Wire, “There was at least one story [about Indians experiencing racist or xenophobic] violence coming out in the Indian media every day… But that’s not how ALL of the US is.”

Countering negative media attention is just one part of Jamal’s plan for the coming months. He is also planning on releasing videos and conducting more media outreach to let Indian students know that the US is still a welcoming and safe place to study.

Jamal added that admissions officials who come to India to deliver informational talks are also rethinking how they pitch their colleges as they brace themselves for a greater drop in applications for the next academic year.

There are other concerns too. The Wire spoke to a number of Indian students – most of whom wanted to remain anonymous – who have cancelled or withdrawn their plans to apply to US colleges, and even declined offers of admission for the coming year. Graduate school applicants are especially concerned about their diminished chances of getting a job in the US after finishing their courses since the Trump administration has cracked down on H1B visas and also introduced legislation that will make it difficult for international students to stay on for long after getting their degree.

The H-1B visa issue was a political hot potato during the elections. It’s no surprise then that the issue is under fierce scrutiny under the Trump presidency. It’s not easy in any case for an immigrant working on an H-1B visa in the United States.

One student in Delhi backed out of applying to engineering masters programmes at the last minute – disregarding months of preparation, including the completed letters of recommendation that he’d requested to supplement his applications. In the past year, too many of his friends – some of them who had been working at software giants like Google and so could be considered to be competitive candidates for work visas – had failed to get H1Bs, leaving them with uncertain futures.

Trump’s new proposal to increase the salary requirement for H1B visas to $130,000 per annum had him especially worried. He told The Wire, “It’s going to be very difficult for people who don’t have high-paying engineering or finance jobs to meet that requirement.”

His father, who encouraged his son’s decision to apply to schools in other countries – Germany, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands seem to have gained the applicants the US has lost – cited “the increasing racism” and increasingly competitive requirements for H1B visas as the two primary reasons for the change of plans.

Dipping figures are a reversal of about a decade of steady increases in applications from international students, which pushed the number of international students studying in the US to over one million last year, according to the ‘Open Doors Report’ published by the IIE. International students brought about $36 billion last year to the US economy and universities have become increasingly dependent on that revenue.

In the last year alone, Indian students contributed $5 billion to the US economy, while Chinese students contributed another $11 billion.

On an average, international students pay much higher fees than locals and help US colleges plug the budget gaps caused by reductions in state funding. Public schools often charge international students two to three times what domestic students pay, thereby subsidising the cost of tuition for US students.

Worry about safety, stereotypes

The National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), one of the institutions conducting the survey, cited Trump’s travel ban as a hard line anti-immigrant policy queering the pitch.

“For educational institutions in the United States, the negative effects of the ban will extend far beyond 90 days and well beyond the six countries involved,” said Nancy Beane, president of the NACAC.

While China and India are not directly influenced by the travel ban, foreign students are conscious that President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies are predicated on a hyper-territorial worldview in which immigrants are cast as job stealers. The political discourse surrounding foreign nationals under the Trump presidency has led to concerns about safety, stereotypes and cultural differences, among other issues. These concerns may deter international students from hopping on a plane and earning an American degree.

College counsellors in India are already feeling the impact of these concerns. A counsellor, who works for one of NCR’s elite schools but is not authorised to speak to the press, said parents’ concerns have driven up interest in countries like Canada, Germany and Australia.

In the meantime, liberal arts institutions in India are gaining in popularity. Bhatia said Ashoka University, with its liberal arts mandate, has become a popular option since it doesn’t come with as hefty a price-tag and promises to be safer than its US counterparts. But for those who have set their heart on studying abroad, the US is losing the charm it once had and there is no saying when the numbers will start increasing again.