Squeezed out in India, students turn to US

17 Oct

When she applied to colleges, she received scholarship offers of $20,000 from Dartmouth and $15,000 from Smith. Her pile of acceptance letters would have made any ambitious teenager smile: Cornell, Bryn Mawr, Duke, Wesleyan, Barnard and the University of Virginia.

But because of her 93.5 per cent cumulative score on her final high school examinations, which are the sole criteria for admission to most colleges here, Mohan was rejected by the top colleges at Delhi University, better known as DU, her family’s first choice and one of India’s top schools. “Daughter now enrolled at Dartmouth!” her mother, Madhavi Chandra, wrote, updating her Facebook page. “Strange swings this admission season has shown us. Can’t get into DU, can make it to the Ivies.”

Mohan, 18, is now one of a surging number of Indian students attending US colleges and universities, as competition in India has grown formidable, even for the best students.

With about half of India’s 1.2 billion people under the age of 25, and with the ranks of the middle class swelling, the country’s handful of highly selective universities are overwhelmed.

This summer, Delhi University issued cutoff scores at its top colleges that reached a near-impossible 100 per cent in some cases. The Indian Institutes of Technology, which are spread across the country, have an acceptance rate of less than 2 per cent — and that is only from a pool of roughly 500,000 who qualify to take the entrance exam, a feat that requires two years of specialised coaching after school.

“The problem is clear,” said Kapil Sibal, the government minister overseeing education in India, who studied law at Harvard. “There is a demand and supply issue. You don’t have enough quality institutions and there are enough quality young people who want to go to only quality institutions.”

US universities and colleges have been more than happy to pick up the slack. Faced with shrinking returns from endowment funds, a decline in the number of high school graduates in the US and growing economic hardship among US families, they have stepped up their efforts to woo Indian students thousands of miles away.

Representatives from many of the Ivy League institutions have begun making trips to India to recruit students and explore partnerships with Indian schools. Some have set up offices in India, partly aimed at attracting a wider base of students. The State Department held a US-India higher education summit meeting on Thursday at Georgetown University to promote the partnership between the countries.

Indians are now the second-largest foreign student population in America, after the Chinese, with almost 105,000 students in the US in the 2009-10 academic year, the last for which comprehensive figures were available. Student visa applications from India increased 20 per cent in the past year, according to the US embassy here.

Although a majority of Indian students in the US are graduate students, undergraduate enrollment has grown by more than 20 per cent in the past few years. And while wealthy Indian families have been sending their children to the best American schools for years, the idea is beginning to spread to middle-class families, for whom Delhi University has historically been the best option.

Safety schools

US universities have now become “safety schools” for increasingly stressed and traumatised Indian students and parents, who complain that one fateful event – the final high school examination — could make or break a teenager’s future career. This admissions season, students exchanged exam horror stories. One knew a boy who was sick with typhoid but could not reschedule. “I know a girl who saw the physics paper and she fainted,” said Nikita Sachdeva, her eyes widening.

Sachdeva, 19, graduated from Delhi Public School in 2010, with a 94.5 per cent exam score, one point shy of the cutoff to study economics at St Stephen’s, one of the top colleges at Delhi University. She decided to take a year off and work as an intern at a nonprofit group affiliated with the World Health Organisation, while applying to US universities.

But for some students, it is not merely the competition that drives them to apply to study in the US. It is also the greater intellectual freedom of an American liberal arts education.

India’s educational system is rigid, locking students into an area of study and affording them little opportunity to take courses outside their major beyond the 11th grade.

Only a few courses of study are considered lucrative career paths. Economics, commerce, engineering and medicine have a certain cachet, while English, history and languages are less well regarded. Often students who cannot afford to study abroad end up in less competitive courses, with a contraction of career possibilities.

“If somebody majors in English here, it’s like, ‘Okay, she’ll get married,”’ said Sachdeva, who is attending the University of Chicago this fall and is planning to major in economics with a minor in creative writing. Other students, finding entrance to their dream school in India impossible, have made similar choices. Siddhant Puri had wanted to study computer engineering at one of the Indian Institutes of Technology since he was a child.

But after a month of coaching in the 11th grade, he decided it was not for him. Instead, he became the vice president of his high school class and played soccer, and now he plans to study German literature and computer science this year at the University of California, Berkeley.

Such students have provided a welcome and much needed boon to US universities.

“We’re accepting an increasing number of students, and they’re excellent,” said Matthew Gutmann, the vice president for international affairs at Brown University, which plans to open an office in New Delhi partly dedicated to recruiting students. Undergraduate applications from India have grown from 86 in 2008 to more than 300 for this academic year at Brown.

“India’s a really big country; it therefore has a really big middle class,” said Allan Goodman, the president of the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit organisation based in New York. “They value education so much so they have been saving for education, and they’re willing to invest in education. And our prices are very high.” The financial strain is considerable. Some middle-class salaries in India are below the poverty line in the West. The difference in tuition between top US and Indian universities is staggering. Tuition at Dartmouth is $41,736 a year, not including room and board, while most of the colleges of Delhi University cost about $150 to $500 per year.

The emotional sacrifice of letting a teenager travel across an ocean is no less acute for some parents. Chandra spent the days before her daughter’s departure in a near panic.

But she has accepted the idea that there is no college in India quite suitable for a young woman like her daughter, who wants to study psychology and who spent the past few months putting the finishing touches a documentary she is making — on the short shrift the humanities receive in the Indian educational system.

“In the end, I’m glad it happened,” Chandra said. “She’s been an excellent student, and she’s not used to settling for second best.”

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