15 Nov 2016 16:33 IST

Post-Trump, international students can still plan to study in the US

If students think the new presidency will change education opportunities in the US, they are mistaken

A PTI report headlined, “ Global students may shun new, ‘less-welcoming’ US ” was one of the most popular trending headlines in BusinessLine last week. The reporter who compiled the story probably got a pat on the back from his/her editor for driving up hits to his story across various Indian media outlets.

But the trouble with the story is that it is misleadingly false. It relies on unscientifically conducted surveys which are not meaningful. Students may have preferred a Clinton presidency to a Trump presidency, but that does not mean they will shun going to the US.

A look at the facts

The US is the global hub of higher education and beats every other nation when it comes to attracting international students. The system focuses not only on teamwork and learning but also promotes an intensely entrepreneurial and competitive environment.

There is extreme emphasis on ethics and mutual respect. Students are made well aware that cheating of any kind is not permitted and if they are found cheating, they will be subject to suspension or even dismissal.

US universities help promote modesty in all its forms. Being around highly distinguished faculty — who are often leaders in their respective fields — is a constant reminder that there are people much smarter than us and that success is largely because of perspiration (to borrow Einstein’s famous quote).

It also makes you communicate better: it is not good enough that you have an original idea. It is even more important to sell it to sceptics and win them over. And communication includes the essential art of being able to listen better.

The misunderstood President

How in the world will these things change simply because a new president is in office?

Most members of the international media misunderstood what Donald Trump had said during the campaign.

He was extremely hard on illegal immigrants, especially those who commit crimes on US citizens. He was very critical about members of a particular religious minority because of terrorism fears. But not once had he uttered anything bad about international students who enter on a valid legal visa, study and then convert to other valid visas, such as a work permit.

This makes sense. Trump is a billionaire businessman who understands the value of skilled and competent employees, without whom he could not have been successful. In his victory speech on the night of November 8, he said he would “call upon the best and brightest to leverage their tremendous talent for the benefit of all — it is going to happen.” Does this sound unwelcoming?

STEM visas

Students go to the US not only for higher studies but also for work. For foreigners in certain fields, there is no doubt that higher education in the country is a clean ticket to employment opportunities there. The high-technology industry has pointed out that the US isn’t producing sufficient numbers of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates, and that companies must rely on foreign graduates to fill these roles in technology companies.

There is already a huge demand for trained medical professionals — doctors, nurses and technicians — some of which can only be met by importing foreigners into the US.

Current US laws are extremely friendly to STEM students. A person who graduates with a Master’s degree can work for one year on a student visa, and then, an additional two years on the same visa using the STEM-OPT scheme. These benefits are automatic — a student does not need a job offer to get these visa extensions. The number of OPT STEM visas granted has risen from about 29,000 in 2008 to nearly 123,000 in 2013.

By comparison, the total number of H-1B work visas allowed each year remains stuck at 85,000. Most companies — TCS, Infosys, Wipro — and international students compete for the same visa pool. In 2013, the 85,000 H-1B visa cap was reached within a week. Clearly, the OPT STEM extension has been popular with students who feel welcomed into an elite club unavailable to anyone else.

Trump never said that he would revoke any of the STEM provisions. For a businessman who wants to double US economic growth, he would not do things that would negatively impact the $35-billion export industry that is the US higher education sector. In fact, he once mused that it was silly for the US to not retain highly trained international students.

Rooted decisions

Many famous global Indians have been educated in the US, including Satya Nadella, Vinod Khosla, Indra Nooyi, Sam Pitroda, Anil Ambani, Sundar Pichai, Fareed Zakaria and Dinesh D’Souza. The Indian American ethnic community is amongst the wealthiest in the US.

If students blindly follow the PTI report and change their plans to study elsewhere, they do so at their own peril, because their decisions are not rooted in facts or reality. That would be a tremendous loss to the US — and a bigger loss to these individuals.

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