The Informed Decision

Several years ago, while traveling in India I hired a car driven by a middle-aged guy named Mohan. As the days passed, we became good friends, and one day while having lunch I asked if he had any kids. Instantly, Mohan’s face changed. With eyes downcast, he shared a story about his son, Arun, who had enrolled in a US university the year before to study computer science engineering. Mohan is from a relatively small village, and the whole neighborhood had celebrated his son’s acceptance and the promise offered by a “tech” degree acquired “abroad.” Mohan felt satisfied that the fifteen years he’d spent maintaining a strict educational program for his son was finally paying off. What’s more, he had managed to accumulate over USD 75,000 to ensure his son’s life would be better than his own. So why, I wondered, did he look so sad?

Mohan had taken advice for Arun’s future from a local educational consultant whom he paid USD 500 to help with the university admissions process—specifically, for advice on degree choice, university selection, and completing/submitting paperwork. After an hour or so, it was decided that computer science engineering was the degree best suited for Arun, and a few universities were shortlisted. Over the next few weeks, father and son were thrilled by the positive responses they received, and after paying an extra USD 250 to the consultant, they finally accepted one university’s offer. Mohan’s wife had mixed feelings about her son’s departure. She worried he wouldn’t get “Indian food’ in the new US town and that he wouldn’t find a suitable place to live. When she expressed these concerns, however, Arun reassured her: “Mum, I have Googled it, and there are at least three Indian restaurants in town, and I am staying at a fine accommodation listed on the university website.” Arun left for the States believing his career would soar as high as his flight!

When the accommodations looked nothing like the internet photos and the Indian food tasted nothing like home, Arun took it on the chin. Things got more difficult, however, once classes began. The lectures weren’t what he expected, and he was beginning to doubt his choice of major. It wasn’t long before Arun fell into a depression. The university offered to change his housing and even to change his course of study, but by this time Arun felt paralyzed and couldn’t think straight.

After three months of suffering, Arun called and asked if he could come home. Mohan’s dream for his son was shattered, yet nothing meant more to him than his son’s happiness. “Come home,” he said, “I love you too much to see you sad. We will figure out something locally.” In a week’s time Arun was back in India where the mental and physical effects of the experience were visible to all who knew him. Of course, it didn’t help that the neighbors now viewed Arun differently. Where once he’d been their shining star–an inspiration to their children—now he felt like a disappointment. Over the next few months, Mohan’s son slowly regained his confidence, and he took up mechanical engineering at a local college. In fact, Arun had just finished this degree when I met Mohan, and he was now locally employed. And yet … Mohan remained sad. “I wish I could roll back the years,” Mohan said. “I could have spent some of that money differently. We could have taken family holidays, maybe even invested in a family business.”

As I listened to Mohan’s story on that warm afternoon, I too felt sad. I wondered if Mohan and his son would have been better served if they’d spoken to a few people who’d actually gone to that university (and maybe even had a background like Arun’s). Moreover, if the consultant had done computer science engineering at that university, the father and son could have gotten much more specific knowledge about the degree, the subjects, the accommodations, and the city. This tailored support could have led to a more informed decision, one which ended either with Mohan’s son reading that degree at the same university—but with much more advanced and credible knowledge—or selecting a more suitable degree and university.

Mohan’s experience is not unprecedented. In fact, I sit on a number of scholarship selection committees, including the Rhodes and Schwarzman Scholarships, as well as on the Board of Governors for several schools, so I was familiar with the issues surrounding my driver’s story. We all want to carve the best paths for our children’s futures—but once studying abroad becomes the educational target, to whom and where do we turn for credible information and guidance? My interests led me to research three interrelated questions: 1) Is there a rising tide of international students looking for university degrees in English-speaking nations? 2) How do universities and governments vie for this market? and 3) What are the attrition rates for first-year university students studying both in and outside their home country?

Ultimately, I became curious about contemporary academic consultancy programs designed to support students’ international movement from high school to university and from undergraduate to graduate school. Was it possible to review and reimagine a pipeline process that would better support people like Mohan and his son? I will return to this question, but first let me share below a sample of my sources and reflections:

  • International students have doubled in the last 15 years: As of 2016, 4.6 million students leave their home country every year to study in another country. This is up from 2.1 million in 2001. (Project Atlas, 2016; UNESCO 2016)

  • The battle for international students: The top host destinations for these nearly 5 million students as of 2016 are: US (25%), UK (12%), China (10%), France (8%), Australia (7%), Russia (7%), Canada (6%) and Germany (6%). These figures can be compared to statistics from 2001: US (28%), UK (11%), Germany (9%), France (7%), Australia (4%), Japan (3%), Spain (2%), and Belgium (2%). (Project Atlas, 2016; UNESCO 2016). These statistics show that there are a significant number of international students in the educational marketplace. Countries and universities seriously compete for these students. Not only are policies revised to attract and retain international scholars, heavy marketing is undertaken. From one perspective, this is good news for global students. It feels good to be sought after. On the other hand, when provided with an array of choices, students find it very difficult to make an informed decision. In the best-case scenario, I thought, students would have mentors carefully guiding their choice of degree and university. Students need information that’s close to the source. And they need help distinguishing between “right information” and “marketing gimmicks.”

  • Various articles on dropout rates show that attrition rates after the first year can vary widely, from 1% to almost 35%, depending on the university. Even more startling is the percentage of students who drop out of higher education altogether (in some cases, the number reaches nearly 70%). (Two sample articles below):

    • US: https://www.creditdonkey.com/college-dropout-statistics.html – The average retention rate across all colleges in the U.S. is 81%. 33% of all college students transfer at least one time during their college career.

    • UK: https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/which-universities-have-the-highest-first-year-dropout-rates – On average, one in 10 UK undergraduates will drop out of university before their second year of study. But in some institutions, that figure is as high as one in four.

  • University fees have increased leading to widespread student debt. Today’s generation of degree holders is weighed down by debt before even starting careers. One high-end consultant recently said: “There is a big bubble of student loans as education is becoming very expensive. I paid USD 240 for State University 35 years back and that cost is now USD 14,000. If you live outside the state, it costs almost USD 50,000. It’s still very expensive and private universities are even higher. Making an informed decision about your career is very important today….”

    • https://www.cnbc.com/2017/10/10/bill-gates-us-college-dropout-rates-are-tragic.html – Over 44 million Americans collectively hold more than $1.4 trillion in student loan debt, and only 54.8% of students graduate in six years. This means that millions of Americans are taking on thousands of dollars in debt without a diploma to show for it.

  • Another educational professional says: “One problem in the US is that students don’t know what they want to do. Hence, they end up in business degrees. They graduate and then can’t get a job. Hence, they need to know what different careers mean. Any technology that will help them talk to graduates to make a decision on what they should be doing will help set them up for an actual job.” If using technology to link students with graduate mentors is useful in a US setting, it’s even more necessary for internationals.

  • The immigration policies of various countries are becoming more complex, so they must be considered when students are making decisions. Students often choose a country that will allow them both to study and get work experience during and after their studies. Some international students also seek to accumulate any points required to migrate to a selected country. However, with changes in law, especially in the US, students are at further risk of making difficult and possibly ill-informed decisions.

Universities with exchange programs are also shying away from associations with universities in countries where their students have difficulty getting visas. In a recent discussion with a dean of one Middle East-based international university, this professional shared: “We are increasingly signing up for exchange programs with universities from China and India due to the difficulties that our students have in getting visas for some Western countries.”

  • https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/02/us/international-enrollment-drop.html – This article examines the role current US immigration laws are playing in hindering international student enrollment.

My research and first-hand experience with people like Mohan demonstrate to me how imperative it is that students and parents be given a real chance to make informed decisions about higher education. In this context, my colleagues and I envision a new model of international consultancy. Capitalizing on mentorship, it is designed to connect students with degree holders from various countries and universities. These professionals agree to act as “insiders,” willing to shepherd international students through a complex process—from determining a major, to selecting target universities, and completing the application packet. (We also invite schools to use our services by subscribing to the Tavvy platform for group student guidance.)

Tavvy (www.tavvy.com), a member of The International Institute of Education, introduces the world’s first marketplace for connecting international students with university graduates and alumni across the world interested in mentoring and guiding them – known as “University Guides”. The only pre-requisite to become a university guide is to have completed any degree course from a recognized university globally that is accredited by the local country’s education authorities. When you register and create a website profile, you’ll be available to guide and share your experiences with students seeking university degrees outside their home countries (it also works for students seeking university information within the country which granted your degree). By sharing with students’ specific details about degrees completed and universities attended, these professionals provide student applicants with experiential knowledge through one-on-one conversations. Since we highly value your efforts, you will be paid for sharing your valuable time and providing precious information to the students.

When students have a detailed picture of their major and its requirements, as well as a vivid sense of the university and its environs, they can make better choices. Of course, this mentoring process won’t solve all issues; first-year attrition rates and student debt won’t disappear, but it can help students make informed decisions. It will also address a key gap in the consultancy process because students don’t always get full and reliable information about a degree course or university. This new vision of consultancy may actually bolster first-year completion rates because incoming students have a clear sense of what will be expected of them.

If you would like to join this initiative, we request you to kindly register on www.tavvy.com as a University Guide.

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Vikesh Gadhia, the author of this article, is a Rhodes Scholar who completed his master’s degree in Economics for Development from Oxford University (UK) & a Bachelor’s degree in Banking & Finance from Cardiff University (UK). He was on the selection committees of both the Rhodes Scholarship (UAE) and Schwarzman Scholarship (Global). He was also on the Board of Governors of Doha College (the only British Embassy-sponsored school in Qatar).
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