Indian students enrollments in the US decrease by 3,000, while Chinese increase by 22,000

After eight consecutive years, India loses its spot as the leading country of origin for international students in the US to China, and that too by a big margin of 22,731 students.

Growth directions of Chinese and Indian students enrollment in the US are showing a sharp contrast. There were 3,137 less Indian students enrolled in graduate and undergraduate programs in contrast to 22,511 more Chinese students in 2009/10 as compared to 2008/09 (IIE Open Doors 2010). These numbers about contrasting growth directions exclude students on OPT (Optional Practical Training) and “Other” non-degree categories and hence indicate real change in student enrollment in the degree-programs at undergraduate and graduate programs for 2009/10 academic year. (Note: CGS reports fall’2010 admissions trends for graduate programs only, while IIE Open Doors reports previous year’s enrollment at all levels).

Over the last five years from 2004/05 to 2009/10, the pace of growth of Chinese students enrollment was nearly three times (CAGR of 15.3%) as compared to Indian students (CAGR of 5.5%). Total number of Chinese students doubled from 62,523 in 2004/05 to 127,628 in 2009/10, resulting in an increase of 65,105 students in five years. During the same period, number of Indian student enrollment grew at a smaller rate and added 24,431 more students in 2009/10 as compared to 2004/05 and much of this growth in the recent years have come because of OPT.

OPT is masking the real decline in Indian students:
IIE Open Doors reports 1.6% growth in enrollment in Indian students which translates into 1,637 additional students as compared to last year. Digging deeper and analyzing the break-up by the academic level, it becomes clear that Indian students have only grown in the OPT category. The number of Indian students on OPT increased by 4,746 while the number of students enrolled in degree programs decreased by 3,137 students, giving a misleading impression of growth in total enrollment.


This significant increase of Indian students in OPT is a direct effect of a very effective policy initiative by the US which allows for extension of OPT from regular 12 months to 29 months for STEM fields. This rule came into effect from April, 2008 and its adoption became more valuable with the recessionary cycle. Given that 57% of all Indian students are enrolled in engineering and computer science programs (see related posting), which qualify for 29-months OPT rule, many Indian students are opting for OPT. Under this arrangement, technically, a students is still “enrolled” in an academic program with an F-1 visa and hence included in the IIE Open Doors numbers.

Where are Indians going?
The UK have been the biggest net gainer of Indian students. Enrollment of Indian students in the UK increased by 8,160 in the period 2007-08 to 2008-09 (Universities UK). More recently, the visa statistics for 2010 admissions indicate significant increase in interest for the UK. This is a result of three interrelated factors:

1) The Australia effect:
The concerns of safety resulted in nearly 5,000 less students enrolling in the Australian higher education (excluding VET etc.) in September 2010 as compared to last year. In fact, total enrollments and commencements (new enrollments) declined by nearly 20% and 48% respectively. Lot of this traffic got redirected to the UK and Canada and less to the US.

2) US didn’t gained from the loss of Australia:
US gained little from the redirecting of the traffic from Australia. This is primarily because even if Indian students are interested in studying in the US, their acceptance rate from the universities is decreasing. This in turn is a result of the very narrow set of institutions in engineering and business which Indian students apply to. Indian students also tend to rely heavily on assistanships and these are much harder to get because of the budgetary crisis of US public universities. See the detailed analysis here.

3) Aggressive recruitment strategies by the UK universities:
These aggressive strategies included use of agents and representative offices in India. For example, the University of Bedfordshire which enrolls about 1,700 Indian students, uses an extensive network of agents and representative office to counsel and recruit students. Likewise, the University of Warwick has representative offices and  University of Salford has multiple agent engagements.

The trend for fall’2011 admissions will be quite similar where UK along with Canada will continue to attract traffic from US and Australia. For the fall’2012 admissions cycle, US economy would have stabilized and Australia would have overcome it’s “unfriendly” image for Indians, over-representation of Indians in business and engineering would prompt UK to slow down, while rest of the Europe with Bologna master’s programs will gain traction, and Canada will attract talent leveraging immigration and funding policies.

Overall, Indians will continue to seek opportunities to study abroad and will be more open to explore alternative destinations. Although, US will remain the leading destination in the short-term, its preeminence is doubtful in the long term.

I welcome any thoughts/comments/experiences you would like to share.

Dr. Rahul Choudaha

Comments are closed.