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Student migration preferences in 2021: What do Indian students want?

In 2019-2020, 200,000 students brought $7.6 billion to the US economy, a 4.4% decline from the year before. Then COVID-19 hit, and the figures plummeted further, raising the question: Are Indian students still interested in pursuing international education after all this? Let’s find out.

To understand the drastic impact of COVID-19 on the study abroad decisions of Indian students this year, iSchoolConnect conducted a detailed survey among 20,000 Indian students in March 2021. The survey, taken by 746 students, posed questions around higher education during COVID-19, factors affecting students’ university and country choices, and what colleges can do to help make the application process easier. The results were a mix of responses, of which some were obvious and some, surprising.

USA is still the top-liked destination

Despite its ever-changing policy occurrences and political upheavals, the US was revealed as a far more preferred choice amongst Indian respondents (43%) across all education levels. America was followed (after a large gap) by Canada (16%), UK (11%), and Germany (10%).

Interestingly, graduate students saw opportunities in a variety of destinations, while 56% of high schoolers and 41% of undergraduates choose US as their preferred education destination.

What makes the US appealing?

The perceptiveness of our Indian survey-takers is remarkable.

The survey revealed that they had so much confidence in foreign healthcare systems that their major concerns around studying, say, in the US, had more to do with shooting and crime than with the number of COVID-19 cases the country would have.

When asked what factors they considered the most important when choosing a destination, the surveyees across education levels said that they value both the quality and the value of American education.

However, the high schoolers showed a greater inclination toward Better Quality Education (63%), undergraduate students and graduates showed increasing favor for ‘Value of a US Degree’ (48% and 49% respectively) and ‘Chance to Pursue a Career in the US’ (42% and 49%) respectively.

Side note: Another important aspect that these students looked at when choosing a university, was ‘Ranking,’ considered by ~45% of respondents as a key decision-making factor.

The interest in a US education is strong. But so are the challenges in acquiring one.

But what about COVID-19?

The harsh realities around COVID-19 play a significant role in altering the student mindset.

When asked ‘Has COVID-19 affected your study abroad plans this year, 25% of undergraduates and 35% of graduate students said they’d chosen to take a gap year. Interestingly, however, 1/3rd of high school students said that they’d study in the US whether it is remote or on-campus.

The survey also revealed these students’ confidence in the US healthcare system. When asked ‘How safe do you consider the US to be?’ 73.6% chose ‘Moderately safe’ or ‘Extremely safe’ as the answer.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the ambiguity around what study options will actually be available this fall is causing Indian students to waiver in their plans at this point.

Providing the right guidance to students

Perhaps one of the most underrated and least discussed factors, the role of recruitment agents is an underlying role-player in Indian students’ higher education decisions.

It plays a vital requirement every step of the way and yet is not as looked after as it should be.

Close to 71% of respondents said that they see recruitment agents as helpful., showing that recruiting in India is stronger when agents are involved.

And while the institutions accessing high-quality agents and providing them with consistent support have a lot to gain, while those that left their agent relationships unattended during COVID-19 may find an unreceptive audience when they seek to re-establish ties.

Messaging that will engage

To better understand what factors matter the most to Indian students right now, we asked ‘What would make choosing to study in the U.S. easier for you?’

Across all cohorts, Indian students want strong academic and career support services. They also prefer ‘Schools that are friendly and easier to get into.’

One factor that stood out, however, was that students choose ‘More accessible visa services in India’ as a deciding factor when it came to studying in the US. And while there isn’t much you can do here, it will make a difference to these students if you communicate that you understand their challenges and offer clear guidance and support.

The Indian student respondents also referred to the experiences and successes of their elder graduate counterparts in those institutions.

While 46% of high schoolers and 43% of undergraduates claimed that ‘Personal (or virtual) conversations with Indian graduates from the institution’ would convince them that an education destination could provide them with a better future, ~45% of students across all cohorts said that they would look out for ‘Personal (or virtual) conversations with current Indian students at the institution.’ Their third best choice was ‘Video testimonials from past Indian graduates from the institution.’

Side note: Get current students and recent alumni on video to address academic successes, career opportunities, and student services.

What does all this mean for my institution?

Every year, institutions struggle with sustaining their enrollment model and the process of finding the right students. A first and a second wave of COVID-19 have added a new set of hurdles to the task.

Having concrete data on the current student will help institutions tackle not only the enrollment problems but also address the issues specific to individual students.

Our recommendations for you-

  1. Develop a strong agent network to connect you to quality candidates and provide solid and current visa counsel
  2. Market to prospective students using authentic student and alumni voices
  3. Build a strong technology infrastructure to engage students throughout the recruitment funnel with real-time counsel (chatbots) and data-informed recruitment initiatives
About iSchoolConnect

iSchoolConnect is an AI-product company that assists students across the globe to fulfill their study abroad aspirations. They also help institutions and enterprises worldwide transform their end-to-end student processes through the smart use of cutting-edge technology, and in-country expertise. Their technologies include the Conversational AI chatbot, Digital Writing Mentor (SOP/Essay Analyzer), Video Interview Analyzer, and a Single-Application use case all of which and more, are consolidated within their two major service module centers - Enrollment and Engagement - which aid institutions with international student recruitment and retention.


Ankita Nagpal

Content Specialist

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