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Straight Talk: Studying in the US is safer than driving a car in India

While gun violence and visa-related uncertainties are understandable concerns, it is undeniable that the quality of American higher education is excellent
BY Pushkar |   10-05-2017
Questions at a visa session at the US Consulate in Chennai (file photo by US Consulate, Chennai, used under CC license)

According to a survey of over 250 colleges by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), 39% of US colleges are seeing declines in applications from international students (though 35 reported an increase while 26% reported no change in applicant numbers). There are reports of a decline in numbers from students in India and China too, who make up 47% of international students in the US.

Since international students bring more than $32 billion a year to the US, their numbers – which surpassed the one million mark for the first time in 2016 – matter a great deal to the US.

The decline in student numbers from India is expected to be significant this year, even though the numbers of those heading abroad will continue to increase. Many more students are opting for Canada than before, as well as countries like Germany.

The fall in student applications from India led MaryKay Loss Carlson, Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy in New Delhi, to write a column in a leading newspaper to promote American universities. In her article, she noted that 166,000 Indians are already pursuing an educational program in the US, up from 100,000 two years earlier. It is surprising, given how popular the US already is as a higher education destination, that a US official actually needs to promote US universities. Clearly, there must be serious worries among US government officials that the number of students who will eventually enroll at US universities will be significantly lower than before.

In her column, Carlson seems to suggest that one of the main reasons why fewer Indian students may choose to study in the US this year is because of concerns about safety and welfare. She writes:

US colleges and universities take pride in providing safe and welcoming environments…. US universities pay careful attention to the safety and welfare of their students. Many universities have come together to send a specific message to students through the #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign.

However, as the AACRAO survey makes clear, the drop in the numbers of international student applications is primarily due to the following reasons:

  1. The perception that there is a rise in student visa denials at US embassies and consulates in China, India and Nepal;
  2. The perception that the US is now less welcoming to foreigners;
  3. Concerns that benefits and restrictions around visas could change, especially with respect to travel, re-entry after travel, and employment opportunities; and
  4. The Executive Order travel ban might expand to include other countries.

Carlson’s emphasis on and assurances on safety and welfare suggests that the perception about the US as less welcoming to foreigners is the most important factor in the decline of student applications from India. Indeed, her article has no mention of the other three reasons noted by the AACRAO survey. The emphasis on safety and welfare is of course linked to reported increases in racism-related violence against non-white immigrants, including Indians, since President Trump took charge.

Do US colleges and universities provide safe and welcoming environments as Loss Carlson states? Officially, they do, of course. And yet, if we pick up the discussion from an earlier column in these pages, eight US states allow firearms to be carried on campus (and Arkansas will join them in September 2017). In 24 others, individual colleges can decide whether to allow firearms on the premises. This is quite apart from the fact that gun ownership laws are far more relaxed in the US than in any other Western nation and more people die from guns than elsewhere. The numbers are revealing. In 2015, for example, 13,000 people were killed by firearms and over 26,000 injured (excluding cases of suicide).

Campus carry laws—which allow licensed gun owners to carry their weapons on public college and university campuses—is also an important issue for potential students to consider with respect to their safety and welfare. A report by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University noted that: “Increasing gun availability in campus environments could make far more common acts of aggression, recklessness, or self-harm more deadly and, thus, have a deleterious impact on the safety of students, faculty, and staff.” The impact campus carry has on the learning environment is also a matter of serious concern. If universities and colleges are not immune from America’s unique gun culture, surely all claims of safety and welfare of students even within college and university campuses, especially of international students who ‘look different’, must be qualified.

What are potential students to make of Carlson’s assurances that American colleges and universities really care about the safety and welfare of international students?

Studying in the US is surely safer than driving on India's roads, whether or not one is the driver, and from a safety and welfare perspective, it is seriously harmful to breathe the air in our cities. With respect to higher education, the majority of our colleges and universities are broken and students are simply awarded worthless degrees. Unemployability rates have remained at pitifully high levels irrespective of the discipline a student graduates in. Also, for the time being, we are simply not generating enough jobs for our young people.

Given such conditions, the option of heading to the US, the UK or elsewhere is an attractive one, provided that one can bear the costs or if one is awarded generous funding for study. Choosing to study in the US (or not to) due to concerns about racism or safety is to that extent a personal choice. As I wrote in these pages, I would personally choose not to study at a college or university located in a gun-friendly state. That does not mean you should not (or should).

The decline in the number of student applications from India, or in the number of students who eventually join American schools, is not and will not be so much due to safety and welfare issues, except perhaps in a few cases. This is because the US may or may not still be the land of opportunities but there is still a perception that there are more opportunities there than here. The decline in student numbers will be due to reasons that Carlson does not address: Concerns about visa denials and uncertainty about changes in benefits and restrictions around visas with respect to travel and employment opportunities. And these are not issues which someone of Carson’s rank is in a position to influence.

 (An earlier version of this article was published in The Wire).

Dr. Pushkar is Director at The International Centre Goa (ICG), Dona Paula, Goa. e tweets at @PushHigherEd.

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