Attending one of India’s leading universities influences whether individuals become immigrants and international students in America and elsewhere. The new research concludes graduates of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) are much more likely to attend graduate school abroad than other students. The best-performing students are most likely to be admitted to U.S. universities and other foreign schools. The research bolsters evidence that America often receives the top talent from other countries.
Examining The Top Students In India
“We study migration in the very right tail of the talent distribution for high school students in India, focusing on the extent to which elite universities in their home country facilitate migration,” according to Prithwiraj Choudhury (Harvard Business School), Ina Ganguli (UMASS Amherst) and Patrick Gaulé (University of Bristol). “We focus on the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). The IITs are prestigious and highly selective technical universities with lower acceptance rates than Ivy League colleges, particularly for the original five IIT Campuses. Admission to the IITs is solely through the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE), where nearly one million exam takers compete for less than ten thousand spots.”
There were five original IITs in India, with campuses opened in Kharagpur (1951), Bombay (1958), Kanpur (1959), Madras (1959) and Delhi (1961). The researchers note the Institutes added branches in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the first five IITs have the top rankings and reputations. The National Bureau of Economic Research published the study.
Undergraduate admissions for the Indian Institutes of Technology work much differently than college admissions in the United States. “At the undergraduate level, admissions to the IIT system are determined solely based on student performance on the annual Joint Entrance Examination, a centrally administered exam covering mathematics, chemistry, and physics. The competition is fierce; in 2010, for instance, around 450,000 individuals took the JEE, competing for less than 10,000 IIT places.”
The research benefited from the public posting of 2010 JEE test scores and included following up on biographical information. “We document a salient correlation between an individual’s score on the JEE exam and migration up to eight years later among the top exam takers,” according to the researchers. “Among the top 100 scorers, for instance, 62% have migrated abroad, primarily to the U.S. and for graduate school. Among the top 1,000 scorers, 36% have migrated abroad, which is still sizeable but much lower.”
They found students who graduated from the original five Indian Institutes of Technology were “5 percentage points more likely to migrate for graduate school compared to equally talented students who studied in other institutions.” The study indicates the IIT diploma “may provide a signal of the quality of the human capital gained in an IIT to graduate schools or employers after graduation.”
Choudhury, Ganguli and Gaulé found elite universities in India and perhaps other emerging economies facilitate the movement of talented individuals to developed economies. “Our evidence . . . supports the view of elite education as mainly signaling a potential migrant’s ability or quality of their human capital, and providing access to valuable networks. U.S. graduate programs—a key pathway for migration—are especially keen to recruit the best and brightest. However, to identify the best and brightest, they must rely on external information and signals, and elite home universities may provide these.”
The researchers found, “We have documented that the incidence of migration among top talent is sizeable, and particularly so at the very right tail of the talent distribution. Among the top 1,000 scorers at the JEE (corresponding to 0.2% of the test takers and 0.00005% of the birth cohort), the share of migrants is around 36%, rising to 62% among the top 100 scorers, and to 9 out of the top 10 scorers.”
Attending Graduate School In The United States
The primary form of migration cited in the study for top scorers in India was attending graduate school in the United States. In the years examined, 65% of the Indians went to the United States, 5% to the United Kingdom, 3% to Canada and 16% to other nations. Eighty-three percent were accepted to study for a master’s or Ph.D., and the rest went for employment. Many who completed graduate school also likely pursued work opportunities in the United States and elsewhere.
The data include students who took the entrance exam in 2010, which means they graduated from Indian universities in 2014 or 2015, according to Prithwiraj Choudhury in response to a question. That means the study may not capture all of the significant increase in Indian students and professionals entering Canada in recent years.
The number of Indians immigrating to Canada has more than tripled since 2013. Many highly skilled foreign nationals, including international students, have chosen Canada over America. This is because it is difficult to gain H-1B status or permanent residence in the United States, and easy to attend school, work in temporary status and acquire permanent residence in Canada.
Between 2016 and 2019, at Canadian colleges and universities, the number of Indian students rose by 182%. At the same time, at U.S. universities, graduate students from India in science and engineering declined by almost 40%.
Employment-based green cards for Indians can take decades in the United States due to the per-country limit and the low annual number of employment-based immigrant visas. In 2022, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) blocked an exemption from yearly green card limits for foreign nationals with a Ph.D. in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields and those with a master’s degree “in a critical industry” from being included in the CHIPS and Science Act.
No Evidence Of Brain Drain
Michael Clemens, a professor of economics at George Mason University, disputes the notion that India or other countries suffer from a “brain drain” when highly skilled people study or work in the United States or elsewhere. “I often hear smart people worry that allowing more skilled immigration from poor countries will harm those countries,” according to Clemens. “Based on that concern many have recommended efforts to block skilled workers from leaving their countries and entering other ones.
“These suggestions rest on unexamined moralism and not a bit on evidence. . . . I know this literature well, and there is no serious research in social science to demonstrate that a policy of blocking talented or educated people from leaving any poor neighborhood, poor rural area, or poor nation has ever caused any of those places to develop—not in any sense, not to any degree. . . . The complexities of skilled migration simply don’t fit inside a pejorative taunt.”
Choudhury, Ganguli and Gaulé believe there are additional avenues of inquiry to explore in research on students and skilled migration: “The first is why the incidence of migration rises dramatically at the very right tail of the talent distribution (above and beyond the gatekeeping role of universities). One potential explanation is that the private return to extraordinary ability is higher in destination countries (perhaps due to agglomeration effects) than in source countries.”
America attracts the most outstanding students in India to U.S. universities. The data show U.S. immigration policies likely will need to change for that to remain the case.
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