Why (and What) Are Indians Studying In The United States?

Indian students are a key source of future immigrants to the United States. Many of these students are recruited off U.S. campuses to work in America and are sponsored for permanent residence (a green card). But why do Indian students come here? And what are they studying?

A primary reason anyone desires to study abroad is the belief that education in another country will offer a unique benefit or perspective, or be important for a future career. When U.S. students go abroad it’s more likely to be for a semester or a year, rather than for a full degree program. However, a chance to earn a degree from a prestigious university, such as the London School of Economics, is valued. But in many cases, Americans are seeking unique cultural opportunities when studying abroad, particularly the chance to master another language.

In the case of Indians, there is great interest in gaining a degree abroad that will advance career goals. The majority of Indians come here to earn a masters or Ph.D. In the 2009/2010 academic year, 65 percent of Indian students in the United States were enrolled in a graduate program, compared to 14.5 percent in undergraduate programs (and 18.7 percent in Optional Practical Training), according to the Institute of International Education. That is much different than for countries as a whole, where the number of students seeking a bachelor’s degree and graduate degree is about even for international students coming to the United States.

There appears to be a strong sense among Indians coming here that an American university education is most valuable in engineering, computer science or business. As Table 1 shows, in the 2009/2010 academic year nearly 40 percent of Indian students in America were enrolled in engineering programs at U.S. colleges, according to the Institute of International Education; approximately 20 percent were in math/computer science and 15 percent in business/management. While 10 percent were in physical/life science, only 5 percent were enrolled in health professions, 3 percent in social sciences and 0.6 percent in humanities. Indians are not coming to America in great numbers to earn a degree in history or sociology.

Table 1

                                                    Indian Students By Field of Study in U.S.: 2009/2010

Business/Management Engineering Physical/Life Sciences Math/Computer Science Social Science Health Professions
Percentage of Indian Students in Field 15.3% 38.8 % 10.2% 19.8% 3% 4.9%

           Source: Institute of International Education

How does this study pattern compare to other countries?

India possesses the highest proportion of students enrolled in engineering, followed by Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Turkey, Pakistan and China. (See Table 2)  India also possesses the highest proportion of students enrolled in math/computer science, followed by Nepal, China, Pakistan and Turkey. It is important to remember that India and China send many more students to the United States than those other countries, which means there is a high concentration of Indians, as well as Chinese, in U.S. graduate programs in both engineering and math/computer science.

For students from many other countries studying in America to earn a degree in business/management is a higher relative priority. While 15 percent of Indian students in 2009/10 enrolled in business/management, 24 percent of students from China did so, as did approximately 25 percent of students from Taiwan, Germany and Pakistan. Nearly 40 percent of students from Vietnam are here to study business/management.

Table 2

                              Percentage of International Students By Country in U.S. Engineering Programs: 2009/2010

Country Percentage Enrolled in Engineering
India 38.8%
Malaysia 28.4%
Saudi Arabia 24.0%
Nigeria 23.6%
Turkey 23.3%
Pakistan 23.2%
China 20.2%

                                                     Source: Institute of International Education

Table 3

                      Percentage of International Students By Country in U.S. Math/Comp. Sci. Programs: 2009/2010

Country Percentage Enrolled in Math/Computer Science
India 19.8%
Nepal 11.7%
China 10.7%
Pakistan 10.7%
Turkey 10.0%

                                                     Source: Institute of International Education


The number of Indian students enrolled at U.S. universities nearly doubled in the last decade and has tripled since 1995. The data show Indians are taking advantage of American universities’ comparative advantage in the fields of engineering, math/computer science and business/management. Examining the fields of study shows Indians have increasingly seen an American degree in these fields as the ticket to success.

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