Dreams becoming nightmares: Plight of Indian students in the US during pandemic
While Covid-19 has monopolized the news coverage worldwide for the past two months, the plight of international students in the U.S. has received little attention. There are over two lakhs of students from India studying in the U.S. They are coping with unprecedented challenges in their young lives.
This is also the time when Indian students receive admission letters from U.S. universities. The students and their parents begin to make preparations for going abroad. Selecting from multiple institutions possibly from different countries, arranging finances, applying for student visas and making contacts abroad at the chosen location are among the frenzied rituals happening in the midst of this pandemic panic.
International students in the U.S. caught in a maelstrom
The pandemic and the reactions to the pandemic hit the U.S. unexpectedly. The decentralized traditions of American decision-making have adversely affected students. Very few decisions come directly from Washington, DC at the Federal level. Much of what affected the foreign students were decrees at the state and the campus levels. Nobody could predict the scope of the catastrophe and so, a lot of decisions were made in an ad hoc manner. Being a presidential election year, news coverage in the U.S. from mainstream media has become totally unreliable since all coverage is laced with political commentaries.
Students were caught in the dynamics of a real health crisis, relentless coverage of trivia, 24-hour news coverage by panel channels where talking heads second guess all governmental actions and spewed off their personal opinions, unexpected closing of college campuses and finally the wholescale lockdown of the entire country. As an example, U.S. medical teams assisting administration initially recommended against using face masks but when the infection spread widely, they changed their opinion and mandated the use of masks. The panel channels like CNN relished the opportunity of mocking at the government instead of recognizing the changing nature of the infection. As H. G. Wells characterized in his iconic novel “The War of the Worlds,” the mighty Martians knelt down before a tiny, unseen 1898 enemy, the bacteria. This became the story of the U.S. against a new virus.
Besieged by the most rampant early Corona attacks, the University of Washington in Seattle was the first major U.S. educational institution to completely stop all in-person classes on March 6, 2020. On the same day, Stanford University too announced that it would move all its classes to an online format for the remaining two weeks of its winter quarter. After all, a cruise ship laden with Coronavirus patients was waiting in nearby San Francisco bay for port entry.
By the third week in March almost all college campuses in the U.S. were caught up in the storm and moved to a virtual instruction format. Some universities sent directives to faculty and staff who were over the age of 65 to remain home and not come to campus at all. They were originally planning to have faculty teach to empty classrooms on campus and beam the lectures to students residing in their dormitory rooms or apartments. Laboratories were exempted in most initial plans and the students could consult with their professors during the brief jaunts to labs in lab-intensive majors like engineering.
The policies changed rapidly by the day. The new directives locked the entire institutions down and the faculty had to use their own home offices to instruct students via teleconferencing. The details of how the students would deal with virtual instruction were still emerging in late March.
The focus was always on limiting the spread of this dreaded virus through social interactions. The plan focused on instructional delivery. Selection of software, faculty training for virtual instruction, providing technical support when problems arose, etc. topped the agenda.
The same approach was adopted everywhere else in the U.S. It was thought that the shutdown would last three or four weeks at the most and normal life would resume afterwards.
As the death toll and the media hype escalated, the infection beyond China, and every misstatement made by authorities was exaggerated and repeated, confusion and paranoia spread around the country. There were cries for shutting down the country. The whole nation was shut down by the beginning of April.
Indian Students and the Lockdown of U.S. Economy
The impact of the national lockdown on foreign students was not in the psyche of authorities. This was not by design or because of any malice but the nature of the pandemic had caught everyone by surprise. It has not emerged as a priority item even now. Indian students were especially affected by the events. COVID-19 and the changes in the economy have been disastrous to their wellbeing in multiple ways.
Indian students in the U.S. came disproportionately from cities like Mumbai and Hyderabad. They are generally considered to be in the low income group unlike those from China, Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore. Except for elite students on fully paid fellowships or research and teaching assistantships, the overwhelming majority of Indian students are deeply in debt and they scrape their parents’ resources to meet their tuition and living expenses.
Loss of income
Indian students depend on small jobs on campus for supplementing their resources. The foreign students are only allowed to work on campus and that too up to a maximum of 20 hours a week. However, such part-time work will fetch $100-$200 a month enough to meet small incidental expenditures that the original plans might have overlooked. The jobs also help students to obtain necessary work documents such as the “social security card” and establish a history of tax payment, items that become helpful as they obtain fulltime jobs later.
Dilution of the quality of education
Indian students who came in search of learning from star faculty, utilizing state-of-the-art facilities that they did not have at home and getting opportunities for collaborating with an international talent pool in the classroom were hit with the reality of a disappearing act when the Corona lockdown started.
Closing of libraries took away not only the reference resources that were not readily accessible on the Internet, but it also made their quiet study space inaccessible. The library was a safe learning center away from their crammed living quarters. Already burdened with homesickness and lack of resources, the quarantined existence exacerbated loneliness. It created a prison like solitary confinement devoid of any social connections or fun in a distant land. Going home to India was no longer an option since India had closed its borders and airlines had stopped most of its flights by April 1.
The case of Karishma Girase from Pune is typical. Karishma started as a post graduate electrical engineering student at California State University Fullerton in January 2020. She needs to pay nearly $20,000 a year towards tuition and insurance expenditures. Under ordinary circumstances it is a bargain considering the high tuition at private colleges that would make the cost twice or three times as much but it is a heavy burden for an Indian pocket. To help pay this amount she took on unsecured loan from a local financial institution at 12.5% interest for ten years.
Her modest spending habits limits the monthly living expenses to $1,000 per month that her parents would bear directly by converting Indian rupees to U.S. dollars. She is luckier than most in this respect but then the Indian rupee’s exchange rate fell more than 10% to an all-time record of nearly Rs. 78 to one dollar, making the conversion much more costly.
The Corona shut down has prevented her from fully experiencing the American education on campus. She did not bargain for being locked inside her small room that she shares with two others. Opportunities for finding part-time jobs during the current semester plummeted and even worse, opportunities for summer work look quite bleak. The tuition payment and living expenses continue unabated while she is moving little clarity about how or when conditions would improve.
2020 Graduates Struggle
Those who are completing the degree in May 2020 (the usual graduation time in U.S. universities) face bleak prospects. The Indian graduates receive 90 days after graduation to find a job. With a job offer, they can amend their student visa to an “OPT or Optional Practical Training” status and work legally for 12 months and earn money to pay off debts while gaining U.S. experience. Thanks to U.S. administration, engineers and computer science majors receive three years of work permit under the OPT program. However, the essential “Employment Authorization Document (EAD)” needs to be procured during the 90-day period following graduation.
The booming stock market, buoyant economy, unprecedented low unemployment rate and strong business confidence that existed as late as February evaporated due to the viral attacks. One of Karishma’s friends who had gone through the interview process and received a good job offer even before completing the degree requirements is in limbo now. “The employer postponed the start date,” Karishma said. “The company is taking a wait and see approach. Perhaps, the hiring will happen at the end of summer. But it is not.” Fortunately, the Trump administration has extended the 90-day window to 180 days, a clear indication that the current administration favors legal work permits.
The illegal immigrants receive much more sympathy attention from the U.S. media and the political parties. The party that opposes the President supports generous illegal immigration ostensibly as a source for expanding their political base. President Trump has always favored legal immigration to qualified professionals in order to continue to maintain U.S. as a magnet for talented people, a clear advantage for Indian students and graduates.
However, even in India, the nuances of the political tussle in the U.S. are not clearly understood. The recent temporary stoppage of all immigration due to Coronavirus is being trumpeted as yet another action against immigrants and the important word “temporary” is conveniently lost in the rhetoric. Also lost is the fact that Indians, account for 73.9 per cent of the total H-1B visa holders in the U.S. Indians are followed by Chinese with a distant 47,172 on H-1B visas, accounting for 11.2 per cent of the total foreign nationals on this work visas.
The overwhelming majority of the 200,000 Indian students are academically strong and are majoring in sought after fields with dreams of becoming the next Arvind Krishna of IBM, Satya Nadella at Microsoft, Sundar Pichai of Google. These enviable icons of Indian diaspora came to the U.S. as foreign students- the first two were electrical engineers and the third a metallurgical engineer. They attended U.S. colleges, received degrees, joined the technical workforce and steadily climbed to the top. Whether the path is going to be so smooth for the new generation of Indian students is an open question.
Business Model of Education in the West
One may remember the words of an Englishman from yester years: Alfred Forbes Sealy, an entomologist scholar from Cambridge University said, “It was the light from the Eastern world (India) which illuminated Europe, and now the West simply reflects back some of the effulgence it formerly gained from the East.” The speaker was the famous former principal of Maharaja’s College and this acknowledgement came during his retirement party held in the College in 1892.
In 2020, western education, especially in the U.S., does not reflect the fond egalitarian sentiments envisaged by Alfred Sealy. Indian students and parents must recognize that the success of the American universities is based solidly on the business model that it practices unabashedly. Even state-supported institutions must raise external revenues to help pay its bills. The emerging affluence of India as a nation and the Indian veneration of education embedded in its culture have become a powerful economic resource for the U.S. institutions.
The Chronicle of Higher Education quoted Adom Getachew, an activist political science professor from the University of Chicago as saying, “Higher education as an industry is in severe crisis,” said. “It was before the Covid-19 pandemic, and that crisis will only exacerbate the condition of higher education in this country.” Governing Boards and State Legislatures in the U.S. are likely to tighten allocations for U.S. universities during the lean years following the relaxation of lockdowns. U.S. universities will be hungry for international students who can pay the hefty out-of-state tuition. An admission letter for the academic year 2020-21 or 2021-22 is likely to reflect the inevitable lowering of admission standards for international students.
U.S. universities are cognizant of these issues for the upcoming year and beyond. In a recent issue The New York Times wrote, “The administrators anticipate that students grappling with the financial and psychological impacts of the virus could choose to stay closer to home, go to less expensive schools, take a year off or not go to college at all. A higher education trade group has predicted a 15 percent drop in enrollment nationwide, amounting to a 23 billion revenue loss.” “The combination of fear for health and safety and the economic impact at the same time is one that I haven’t experienced, and don’t think most university leaders have,” said Kent D. Syverud, the Chancellor of Syracuse University. So, there will be an all-out effort to reduce the revenue loss by recruiting more students.
Sending a student to the U.S. to enter a second or third rate institution was not a prudent decision even during the giddy economic ebullience of the recent past. It is now imperative that students and parents screen the quality of the university before borrowing money. Massaging a veritable American phrase, one can say that not all U.S. universities are created equal.
Indian students and parents need to look at U.S. education with the same business sense. What will be the Return on Investment (ROI) for the huge loans needed to send a child to the U.S. for higher education? Unless and until the U.S. economy bounces back and more importantly, the Indian economy returns to normalcy, incurring loans is not a prudent decision. Those who have unlimited disposable income can afford to spend upwards of one crore Rupees towards a child’s education, with little worry about pay back. The ordinary family needs to have a great deal of soul searching before committing to an expensive U.S. expedition.
Those who do not have personal resources typically depended on bank loans. Indian banks demand collateral for large loans as security in order to reduce the risk involved in paying off the credit. The family essentially pawns their property to secure the funds for a U.S. education for their children. However, the loan repayment schedule starts immediately after the receipt of the loan and the payment rate balloons immediately after completion of the degree program. So, the Indian student community is often drenched in debt and the pressures are high to complete the degree and begin to earn income in the U.S.
There are signs of hope that the U.S. economy will rebound and do so quickly. The Dow Jones Average, the U.S. stock market, was riding high and had reached a record high of 29,552 on February 12 only to precipitously fall to a 52-week low of 18,213 on March 23 of this year. It has, however, bounced back to around 24,000 by May 1. This is a good sign but in recent weeks a record number of 30 million people filed for unemployment benefits. Such numbers will negatively affect Indian students already in the U.S. and should be of interest to those who are preparing to come to the U.S. for higher education.
So, what should a family contemplating a U.S. education do? Here are some suggestions.
Think carefully about taking loans
If you have disposable income and can gamble one crore rupees, the decision is easy. For those who do not have personal resources and borrow money more caution is necessary now. Indian banks demand collateral for large loans as security in order to reduce the risk involved in paying off the credit. The family essentially pawns their property to secure the funds for a U.S. education for their children. Unsecured loans are more difficult and will result in a higher interest rate. Usurious rates by lending institutions reminiscent of ‘blade companies’ should be avoided at all cost.
Defer admission for a year or two
Even if you have already sent 20,000 or 30,000 rupees as a deposit for admission, forgoing this money is cutting one’s losses early. However, most universities are likely to defer the admission by one year, especially due to the uncertain conditions existing now. The key is to make a written electronic request to the right authorities and approach all points of decision making. Since all U.S. universities are under lockdown now, a quick reply or favorable decision may not happen immediately. With persistence one may be able to defer admission and reevaluate the situation for the fall semester of 2021.
Diligence in choosing a major
Taking loans to study Medieval Art or European History in the U.S. can only be justified if the person does not need to work and earn a living. American higher education system is full of such alluring majors with zero job prospects, even for U.S. citizens. Students can get those degrees with from a local college in India with little expenditure.
Reconsider undergraduate education
Undergraduate education, regardless of major, is abundant, accessible and affordable in India. Whether it is engineering, business or computer science, accredited Indian institutions provide excellent foundation. Even the elite private universities India cost only a fraction of their U.S. counterparts. The Indian foundation is deep and solid; the U.S. built super structure remains, modern, rich and sustainable. Distinguished professionals like Nadella, Pichai and Krishna took the path of basic degrees from India followed by higher education in the U.S. Thousands of other lesser known but highly accomplished Indian professionals too did just that.
Many colleges offer “undergraduate scholarships” which are nothing but small discounts on the heavy tuition charged to overseas students. Getting a $5,000 ‘scholarship’ when the tuition is $25,000 is simply a sale event where the 20% off sign lures the buyer. You still wind up paying the hefty $20,000 price tag for something with questionable value. Indian students once associated with ‘holy cows’ have transformed into cash cows.
Elite institutions in the U.S. provide unparalleled brand identity for life, second and third-tier institutions do not. So, one may want to be very careful in choosing a university when paying for the education. If a legitimate assistantship or fellowship is offered to a good student, taking advantage of that opportunity is worthy of consideration.
The Coronavirus affliction has greatly affected the quality of life and future prospects of Indian students who are currently in the U.S. Their plight is varied and challenging. “The Indian values of modesty and wisdom allow us to cope with the situation,” Karishma said. “The students here tightened our belts as best as we can and move forward.” Unlike students from other cultures, Indian students do not have an urge to splurge during tough times.
Established Indian professionals in the U.S. and the many community-based organizations of Indian origin have not come forward to address the needs of U.S. students as they themselves scramble to find clarity in the midst of this confusing pandemic. The U.S., however, has been a resilient nation historically. It bounced back from the humiliation it suffered in Pearl Harbor and 911, weathered the depression of 1929 and the economic downturn of 2008. From what we can see, the administration is anxious to kick start the economic engine and thrust the nation to its economy to go past the previous pre-virus heights.
For Indian students and parents, however, the prudent strategy should involve a wait- perhaps a long wait, and careful observation about the recovery of Indian economy.
(Dr. R. Unnikrishnan is currently a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the former Dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at California State University, Fullerton.)