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How students can navigate the complex higher education landscape in the United States

As aspirations towards the ‘American Dream’ dissipate, it is crucial for the next wave of students to adopt a more grounded, pragmatic mindset as they seek higher education and other opportunities in the United States.

How students can navigate the complex higher education landscape in the United States

Sunday March 24, 2024 , 8 min Read

In 2021, a tidal wave of Indian students flooded airports in the United States, backpacks slung over their shoulders and eyes sparkling with hope. In the heady days of free-flowing zero interest rates, Silicon Valley's tech behemoths let their moonshot ambitions soar. With cheap capital abundantly available, companies such as Google, Apple, Meta and others went on an unrestrained hiring frenzy. Thousands of software engineers, data scientists and product managers were being brought aboard, their lucrative pay packages swiftly reaching stratospheric heights.

For the Indian diaspora that has long dominated America’s tech workforce, this once-in-a-generation compensation boom set off a veritable bonanza. Suddenly, tales of friends and family members “making it big” at West Coast tech utopias were the new focal point of household aspirations across India. 

The big American paychecks being earned were swiftly put towards one-upping neighbours with purchases of larger homes, sleeker luxury cars, and haute couture fashion statements. If you really wanted your child to taste this rarified air of wealth, getting them admitted to a US university became the perceived golden ticket.

In India, edtech startups were perfectly poised to ride this cresting wave of aspiration. With venture capitalists similarly emboldened to back any startup’s ambition, study abroad edtech companies were showered with mega funding rounds. They directed these war chests towards aggressive, unrestrained marketing campaigns that sold the American degree as the sure-shot pathway to getting that coveted H-1B visa and earning a Google-sized paycheck.

A tidal wave of students became convinced. In 2021, airports across America saw the arrivals terminal flooded with fresh-faced Indian youth, backpacks strapped on and eyes sparkling with hope of making it big. Everyone had been sold on the idea that an elite STEM degree from a US university was his golden ticket to wealth and career success.

At the supply side, both prestigious universities and lower-tier universities were more than willing to meet this heightened degree demand. As the internet democratised knowledge, the traditional higher education model was being increasingly disrupted and pressured. To protect their elite revenue streams, institutions like those in the Ivy League swiftly established shiny new disciplinary programmes–engineering management,  business analytics, supply chain, data science, industrial operations, and the like. 

With household-name brand power, these schools could command premium $80,000+ annual price tags that parents were all too eager to pay for their child’s future career success. After all, who wouldn’t want to have an Ivy League Diploma embossed on their wall!

What’s more, insider reports suggest collusive arrangements being negotiated between the edtech firms and many university admissions departments to streamline this pipeline. With the edtech marketing machines working in overdrive and the US government casually quadrupling issuance of international student visas from India (43,000 in 2019 to 1,33,000 in 2023), these universities were rejoicing at the incoming torrent of full tuition-paying pupils.

education abroad

Pursuing an overseas education can be an enriching transformative experience, but the expectations must be properly calibrated and students must take ownership of charting their own journeys through highs and lows alike.

Image source: Shutterstock

This frenzy of spending, ambition and investment lasted until the inflation crisis of 2022. As interest rates dramatically hiked to rein in rising costs, the music abruptly stopped. Hiring freezes spread across Silicon Valley like wildfire. The once-lavish tech payrolls that had become unsustainable came crashing back down to reality.

For recent graduates who had been sold on that tech utopia dream, the consequences have been catastrophic. Having drained the family’s life savings on an elite $200,000 American STEM degree, many of the students now spend their days in 2024 filling hundreds of job applications with the same info again and again on the same UI screens, hoping that one of those will translate into recruiter call–a far cry from the corporate coding job they had been promised in those very same edtech brochures that had fuelled their tuition payments. 

The dreams of the minimalist designer furniture, luxury electric sedan, and high-rise apartment that symbolise true ‘making it’ in America seem to slip further away with each compounding student loan statement that arrives.

There is an exploding mental health crisis now, impacting over 1 lakh Indian graduates who find themselves stranded stateside with devalued degrees rendered largely unemployable. As the harsh reality of being just another expendable cog sets in, anxiety and depression rage. All while those same universities continue touting their elevated rankings. And the edtech firms that fanned the hype bonfire continue their tactics while the party lasts.

What was initially marketed as a virtuous growth circle of investment, studying, and high-paying careers has devolved into a vicious cyclone of exploitation. When brutal recessions inevitably hit, there are finite limits to how many high-salaried roles even the most vibrant economy can sustain. No matter how fancy the degree name is or which buttery calf-leather the diploma cover is embossed upon, the jobs pipeline can only be stretched so far.

The illusion has been shattered for these debt-laden graduates. Tens of thousands more immigrant lives and household finances have been derailed, their boundless aspirations extinguished by the very system that compelled them to chase what was promised to be the American Dream in the first place.

Need for a pragmatic approach 

As aspirations towards the ‘American Dream’ dissipate, it is crucial for the next wave of students to adopt a more grounded, pragmatic mindset when navigating the complex higher education landscape in the United States.

Firstly, careful due diligence is paramount before investing significant sums into any university programme, be it domestic or international. The prestige of an institute’s brand name and the hype surrounding its programme offerings must be weighed against realistic career outcomes and return on investment metrics. Thorough research into programme curriculum, faculty expertise, and alumni placement records for the programme should supersede any marketing rhetoric and university ranking.

Additionally, students would be wise to upskill themselves with relevant technical skills even before setting foot on American soil. Those arriving with prior experience and proficiency in areas like coding, data analysis or specific tool proficiencies often have a considerable edge during interviews and job hunts. The competitive American job market shows little leniency; so relying solely on theoretical classroom knowledge can prove insufficient.

Networking plays a pivotal role in securing career opportunities across the US professional landscape. Indian students must be proactive in engaging with university alumni networks, seeking mentorship, and nurturing relationships well before graduation. Building genuine connections and gaining insights, rather than solitary transactional asks for job referrals, is the wise approach. Understanding the cultural emphasis on relationship-building can unlock valuable guidance and inside knowledge.  

It is also prudent to approach the US college experience with appropriate expectations, shedding any illusions of an automatic pathway to wealth or career success. The degree is merely a foundational step; concerted effort towards skills development, networking, internships and hands-on experiences will be vital to stand out in fiercely competitive job markets. With a limited number of H-1B work visas issued annually through a lottery system, international students must brace themselves for the possibility of having to return to their home countries post-graduation.

This reality, however, need not be viewed through the lens of failure. The 21st century emergence of India as an economic powerhouse and hub for innovation across sectors like technology, manufacturing and services is rewriting many conventions. Agile learners who amalgamate their US-acquired skill sets with ambitious entrepreneurial thinking can find immense opportunity awaiting them back home. 

From contributing to India’s thriving startup ecosystem and digitalisation initiatives to revolutionising fields like space tech, climate technology, cleantech, edtech and healthtech– creative problem-solvers will be pivotal nation builders.

The path to meaningful work and impact seldom unfolds seamlessly, regardless of one’s educational pedigree. By cultivating resilience, adaptability and a growth mindset, Indian students can insulate themselves from disillusionment while amplifying their chances of forging rewarding careers across global landscapes. Grounded optimism, calculated risk-taking and appreciation for multiple pathways should be guiding lights, replacing dogmatic narratives that succumb to herd mentality or fatalistic cynicism.

Pursuing an overseas education can be an enriching transformative experience, but only when expectations are properly calibrated and students take ownership of charting their own journeys through highs and lows alike. As Indian youth increasingly navigate this cross-pollination of cultures and ideas, wisdom lies in embracing a pragmatic worldview–one anchored in self-awareness, personal agency, and an unwavering spirit of lifelong learning.  

Armed with relevant technical skills, strategic networking, a solutions-focused attitude and openness to unconventional routes, the next generation of Indian students can approach their American sojourns with clarity and grit. The road may be arduous, but fortified with pragmatism, they can transform challenges into opportunities across evolving global landscapes.

(The author is the co-founder of, a platform that seeks to help job seekers find their dream jobs.)

Edited by Swetha Kannan

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)