Indian Students are the Engine of U.S. Innovation Economy

By PK Agarwal, Regional Dean and CEO of Northeastern University-Silicon Valley

On my recent visit to India to promote higher education in the U.S., one troublesome question kept coming up: “Are Indian students still welcome in the U.S.?”

The answer is a resounding YES! Earlier this year, the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and Consulates General in Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Mumbai opened their doors to more than 4,000 Indian students applying for visas to pursue higher education in the United States. Currently, 166,000 Indian students are enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education—up from 100,000 just two years ago.

Indian-born workers have contributed to the austerity of the golden goose of tech to the U.S. economy.  A quarter or more of the Indian-born workforce is employed in the tech industry and some 10-20 percent of all tech start-ups have Indian founders. However, despite the contribution of many Indian-born students to the exponential growth of the innovation economy, there is growing perception that they are no longer wanted or welcome in America. The data shows otherwise. The U.S. student population rose 25 percent in 2015-2016, according to the Times of Mumbai, and contributed $5 billion to the American economy.

For international students, the U.S. is still the golden gateway education opportunity. Some Indian students and their families worry about potential immigration restrictions, and this concern is real. An article posted recently to Bloomberg notes that the U.S. government has received more than 300,000 H-1B visa petitions and extensions so far this year, according to data released last week by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, compared with a total of 399,349 in all of 2016. A little more than 58 percent of those were approved, a rate considerably lower than that of 2016, when 87 percent were approved.

As a result, some Indian students who might otherwise consider the U.S. as a destination are starting to look at options elsewhere around the world. That would be a shame for both students and the American universities that educate them. Across the world, a U.S.-based education is still the “best game in town,” and all students, including those from India who benefit from the enormous job engine that a degree from an American university affords.

Current projections call for a shortfall of 1.2 million STEM professionals in the U.S. by 2020, and the value of an American degree is clear. Northeastern University is doing its part to make these jobs more accessible to international and native students alike. We’ve pioneered the ALIGN (Accelerated Link to Industry through Northeastern’s Global Network) program to provide anyone with a bachelor’s degree an accelerated, one-of-a-kind pathway to high-demand STEM careers—no secondary bachelor’s degree or lengthy prerequisite work required.

Increased access to a high-demand STEM career is a pragmatic incentive for international students—and that’s a message repeated over and over to anxious parents throughout India. In a world where jobs are becoming more specialized, ALIGN is diversifying the STEM field and educating a new kind of student for today’s in-demand careers. ALIGN’s students come from a variety of backgrounds; undergraduate majors range from math, engineering, journalism, and the classics.

Creating a welcoming environment for Indian students that continues to generate feelings of welcome to the United States is more than a moral or political issue. An open-door policy, aided by programs like ALIGN, helps fuel the U.S. innovation economy while securing hundreds of thousands of jobs for Indians. We must remember that pragmatic economic interest and prominence as a reliable and trustworthy international neighbor will always prevail.


P.K. Agarwal is regional dean and CEO of Northeastern University-Silicon Valley and former chief technology officer for California under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Learn more about Northeastern University-Silicon Valley here:




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