06 Apr 2021 19:06 IST

Why the US still remains the go-to place for an MS/MBA degree

The system focuses on teamwork and learning and promotes an intensely entrepreneurial and competitive environment

In September 2020, as the United States was at its peak fighting Covid-19 and race riots, the US Department of Education released its much-awaited Open Doors report. For the fifth consecutive year, the US hosted more than one million international students. Today, international students contribute $44 billion to the US economy; so it is a huge American export, always in demand.

Other numbers were in line with prior years. Over half (52 per cent) of international students in the US pursued majors in STEM fields of study (engineering, maths, and computer science, physical and life sciences, health professions, and agriculture) in 2019/2020. Engineering continued to be the leading field of study with one in five (20.5 per cent) international students pursuing this field. Math and computer science was the second leading field of study. India remained the second-largest source with about 1,93,000 students.

Engine of innovation

America has been a market for bright Indian students ever since the first IITians made their way to American graduate schools in the mid-1960s. They helped make the American research university arguably the world’s most powerful engine of innovation and discovery. Dr Jonathan Cole of Columbia University maintains a list of the great contributions of US universities to everyday living: FM Radio, Sound & Motion Picture, Laser, the Richter Scale, Public-key cryptography, LED, High-octane aviation fuel, Heart Assist Pump, Google, PET Scans, Reverse Osmosis, Unix, Data Mining, Email, Bar codes, Photoshop, Web browser and Acid Rain (reducing sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, precursors of acid rain). Can one really imagine modern life without these innovations that we all take for granted?

The United States also dominates pure research, the kind that wins Nobel Prizes. Over the years, America is number 1 with 270 Nobels, leaving the UK a distant #2 at 101 prizes. Japan, the country universally known for innovation and product development, clocks in at #10, with only 12 Nobels.

It is little wonder that young students line up to study in such a setting and be a part of the next big thing. In India, the quest starts early, as soon as a student completes the 12th grade. Many enter engineering and science colleges with only one goal in mind: travel to America to pursue an MS or an MBA. Most never return to India, preferring to remain in the United States even though current waits for a Green Card, the coveted permanent residence status, take 70-80 years under present law.

Teamwork and learning

The US education experience is unparalleled. The system focuses on teamwork and learning but also promotes an intensely entrepreneurial and competitive environment. There is an 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 are subject to suspension or even dismissal. Being around highly distinguished faculty — who are often leaders in their fields — is a constant reminder that there are people much smarter than you and that success is largely because of perspiration (to borrow Einstein's famous quote). The US institution trains you to communicate better. It is not good enough that you have an original idea. It is even more important to sell it to skeptics and win them over. And communication includes the essential art of being able to listen better — something with which many Indian students have trouble.

For students in certain fields, there is no doubt that US higher education is a clean ticket to employment opportunities in the US. The high-technology industry says that the US is not producing sufficient numbers of STEM graduates to fill roles in technology companies. Hiring is done through the Optional Practical Training (OPT) visa which grants two bonus years to STEM graduates. An international student can remain on the STEM OPT visa for three years after graduation and then convert to the H-1B visa, en route to a Green Card.

But something strange is happening in the world of OPT visas, confounding policymakers, educational institutions, and the tech industry. Rachel Rosenthal of Bloomberg notes that the number of initial approvals for OPT has exceeded those for H-1B visas every year since 2015. This is extraordinary because, with the number of H-1B visas capped at 85,000, companies are preferring unlimited OPTs as the de-facto vehicle to hire young STEM students. Nearly 78,000 active Indian students are on the OPT visa, two-and-a-half times the number from China. Without the OPT visa, Indian students would not flock to America the way they have been.

Land of opportunity

America continues to be the land of opportunity. So many Indian Americans have risen to top positions in industry, academia, government, and research, that it is no longer fashionable to maintain lists. The biggest tech companies in the world: Google, IBM, Microsoft, and Adobe have tens of thousands of Indians working there, all the way to the top.