Recession clouds the Great Indian Dream of US degree

Universities are hardselling courses but there are few takers amid worries about job market and repaying student loans.

Written by Saritha Rai | Bangalore | Published: March 2, 2009 9:40 am

“Go skiing in the morning and scuba diving in the evening… Be sure to pack your fancy clothes for the parties!”

If you thought this was marketing spiel for a luxe vacation spot,you couldn’t be farther from the truth. On a sunny February afternoon recently,this was Sudha Kumar,a recruitment coordinator in India for the University of Southern California (USC),hardselling the charms of the top-ranking school in downtown Los Angeles to a conference room packed with engineering students at Bangalore’s leading PES Institute of Technology.

Although more Indian students go to USC than any other college in the US,in these days of a global economic slump,the affable,helpful Kumar has her job cut out.

The US has been the study destination of choice for Indian students with close to 100,000 of them headed there last year. For long,an American degree followed by a job in the US has been the focal point of many a middle-class Indian dream,a dream that has been alternately termed ‘brain gain’ in the US and ‘brain drain’ here.

But,as the deadline for this year’s fall admissions approach,things look uncertain for thousands of bright Indian students coveting a US engineering degree or an MBA.

A brutal US job market,rising cost of education because of the declining rupee,and the drying up of student loans by banks and financial aid by US universities is making many Indian graduates,including those from PESIT,skip the visa lines at the American embassy this year.

That particular afternoon,though,the students hung on to every word as Kumar attempted to get them acquainted with American university culture. “Just because your professor insists you call him Bob,that does not mean will he cut you slack on your homework submission,” warned Kumar.

“Bring lots of underwear,” she advised,“the schedule is so demanding you may not have time to do laundry.” Then she added a lighter note,“You may feel at home because LA,like Bangalore,has its share of traffic problems.”

Despite the interest levels in Kumar’s hour-long talk spiced with handy tips,the questions at the end of the session were revealing.

Does USC offer scholarships,a student wanted to know. None for the master’s programs,was Kumar’s answer. Are the fees affordable,another asked. USC is an expensive school,she admitted. How will the recession affect the job market,queried a third. The market for USC graduates is still looking good,she said.

The session did nothing to ease the anxieties of 21-year old Mayank Goyal. He worried about getting a bank loan to study in the US,and about not landing a job immediately after getting the masters degree.

“I cannot get my father to finance me in this uncertainty,” said Goyal,who has another year to go before he finishes his telecommunications engineering degree. His father runs a dry fruits business.

The anxiety is pervasive. Siddhanth Dhodhi,21,also from the same college,has applied for admission to the USC and 11 other North American colleges. His father,a senior manager with Toyota Motor in Dubai,has promised him full financial backing.

Dhodhi has just received an admission letter from Cornell University in Ithaca,New York. The Masters in engineering there will take over a year and cost $53,000. This is where Dhodhi finds himself faltering. “What is the guarantee that the recession will be over by the time I finish? Is it worth the risk?” he asks.

His batchmate Kiran Sajjanshetty,21,a university topper with a GRE score of 1,400 (that would get her admission into the best US schools),has applied to five top-tier American universities.

Her dream college,Carnegie Mellon at Pittsburgh,Pennsylvania,has offered her a seat but no funding. She has two more months to cough up the requisite $60,000 to cover her tuition and expenses. Her parents cannot afford it,Sajjanshetty said. And unless she shows the entire sum in her bank account,she will not get a US visa.

Many of Sajjanshetty’s friends have stopped applying for overseas admissions altogether. Those who have completed their overseas degrees — like a senior who has just finished her Masters at the University of Manchester — are returning home because they have not landed jobs.

Stories like these have unnerved this year’s aspirants. “Everybody is rattled,” said Sajjanshetty. “They are modifying their plans”.

Those who have jobs on hand are hesitating to leap into the uncertain world of studying overseas,said Sandesh Jayant,a computer science professor at PESIT’s sister college.

Sajjanshetty is confident that the economic downturn will not affect her future: she wants to get into research in robotics and artificial intelligence in the US and feels that this will not be impacted by the vagaries of the recessionary job market.

But she is preparing for the worst. She has written to Carnegie Mellon asking them to defer her admission until next year. If none of the other colleges grant her financial assistance,she plans to do research for a year at her college before trying her luck again.

USC coordinator Kumar,meanwhile,has an update on applications for USC’s fall admissions. The numbers are substantially up compared with last year. That’s not surprising,because US college enrolment is known to spike during recessionary years.

However,she suspects that many students like Dhodhi and Sajjanshetty will keep their options open till the very last day. “What will finally count is the conversion from application to admission,” says Kumar.

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