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Droves of academe

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CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

As far back as the late 1980s, moseying around NJIT, an engineering school on the US East Coast, I heard it described as New Jayanagar Institute of Technology. Jayanagar is a Bangalore suburb, and such were the number of engineering students who came from there to NJIT (which stands for New Jersey Institute of Technology) for advanced degrees that the desi crowd I hung out with joked, in a hyperbolic fit, that they could stage a tennis ball cricket game between Jayanagar 4th block and Jayanagar 9th block on the campus.

Much later, when Pakistanis joined in numbers, NJIT was dubbed the Nehru-Jinnah Institute of Technology. Cricket games between Gurgaon's Sector 49 and Sector 66 may still be a stretch here, but heck, Lahoris and Mumbaikars can sure duke it out. Oh, lest you forget, America (Philadelphia, to be precise ), and not England, was the site of the first ever international cricket game.

Anyway, such jokes about the desi presence on US campuses abound in the Midwest and California too. The University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), birthplace of the internet browser, is jokingly called University of Indians and University of Chinese. The University of Texas in Austin (UTA) is University Teeming with Asians. Out on the west coast, University of California in Davis (UCD) is called University of Chinese and Desis, topped only by the University of California in San Diego (UCSD), which is called University of Chinese and Scores of Desis.

But the sense I've had over the last few years is that fewer Indian students are keen on making the American journey. Starry-eyed pursuit of the American Dream seems to be fading. I had based this on anecdotal evidence, including family inputs. Nephews and nieces and friends' children, who were hitherto coming to the US in droves, were crying off. Enquiries about universities, funding etc were less persistent, and one saw many of them pursue their higher education in India or join the workforce straight from college, armed with a modest undergrad degree. The booming Indian economy seemed to be undercutting the groves of American academe which were teeming with desi youth till recently.

Evidently, that's not entirely correct. The number of Indian students coming to the US for higher education is climbing. They number around 100, 000 on US campuses at this point, having climbed steadily from around 30, 000 in the early 1990s. Indians now make up some 15 per cent of the 600, 000 foreign students (the biggest block), having overtaken the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese. Yes, one simple explanation for that is those countries now have much better schools. We are still getting there.

But what's also different now is how and when Indian students are getting to America. Whereas in the old days, our average Amit or Ashok toiled endlessly on the admission process, now US recruiters are hoofing it to India to entice them. Apparently, US schools now have the equivalent of travelling academic sales people, who go around the world hawking the virtues of American education. Major schools now have dedicated units to scout the world looking not just for the best and the brightest, but also the wealthiest.
It turns out many schools have realised foreign students bring in considerable lolly, not to speak of the spark, the kind which led to the birth of Google, Facebook and the like. Indians alone fork out more than $3 billion a year for that prized US degree. It also appears that while grad school admissions may be tailing off, more and more Indian parents are sending their children for undergrad studies, which means little or no financial aid, and paying for up to six years of schooling at over $20,000 a year.

Of what use this pricey American degree will be for those who have borrowed and scrounged is anyone's guess. It's one thing to spend $100, 000 on a degree in anticipation of a $150,000 start-up job in New York or San Francisco. But as many of our wards are discovering to their dismay, they could also end up in New Delhi or Nairobi, where the pickings are more modest, and the college loans will take a lot longer to clear.

But the rich couldn't care less. You can see their brats in pricey downtown apartments in Washington DC, mid-way between Georgetown University and George Washington University. At a time of severe housing hardship in America, they rent $3, 000 a month apartments, drive flashy cars, and live the good times even in a recession-hit America. That's also why America wants them.

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