WASHINGTON --- A booming middle class, shortage of local university spots and ready supply of talented English speakers have long made India a favorite recruiting target of American colleges.
The billion-person subcontinent sends more students to the United States than any other country except China, and American institutions are looking to expand their presence in India. But many colleges are still trying to perfect their approach to recruiting Indian students, particularly undergraduates.
A new survey of 83 college officials discussed Tuesday at the Association of International Education Administrators conference reveals widespread interest in growing and maintaining Indian partnerships, while also hinting at frustration with some aspects of their interactions in the country. But interest in India seems high -- there were three sessions on the nation at the AIEA meeting on Tuesday.
Administrators at the University of Cincinnati and Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis were among those sharing their efforts to increase their Indian populations.
At Cincinnati, 535 of the 571 Indian students on campus are graduate students. Jonathan Weller, the college’s director of international admissions, said Cincinnati works with six agents at 100 offices in India to recruit students and has a full-time university employee stationed there. Admittedly late to the international recruitment game, Cincinnati is looking to build its name in “focus countries” like India. (Cincinnati also has two country coordinators in China and one in Vietnam.)
Cincinnati’s effort in India included the creation of two full scholarships, covering everything from tuition to airfare, awarded to young women from rural India last fall . Those students drew so much media attention in India that they were recognized by the customs officer at the airport and then again on the plane ride across the ocean.
One of those students was Anjani Lahane, a computer science major who in India had to walk 90 minutes each way to school – a task made even more onerous by monsoon season.
But with only two scholarships to hand out every four years, that program isn’t enough to make a major dent in the gap between Cincinnati’s undergraduate and graduate populations from India. Despite a growing economy and population, many Indians aren’t willing or able to splurge on an undergraduate education at an American college. And American colleges, especially public institutions in budget atrophy, can only offer so much in financial aid as they struggle to meet the needs of those at home.
“India is still a pretty price-sensitive market on the undergraduate level,” Weller said. “We have to deal with the reality, which is that India is a very graduate-oriented market.”
At IUPUI, Sara Kurtz Allaei has encountered a similar trend. As an assistant dean and international enrollment director, she’s seen the college's Indian student body grow to about 250. Of those, she said, about 90 percent are grad students.
Both IUPUI and Cincinnati have subsidized faculty travel to India for those willing to meet with prospective students. Often those faculty members are Indian and traveling home anyway. The colleges are also looking to connect with alumni living in India who might be willing to help in recruitment.
The ambitions and frustrations of IUPUI and Cincinnati appear to be common among the 83 AIEA members from around the world who replied to a recent survey about their institution's presence in India. Of those colleges, about two-thirds were public and 90 percent were in the United States. Forty-five percent had more than 100 Indian students, and about a quarter had more than 250. Many of the colleges were large, with about a quarter having at least 30,000 students and two-thirds having more than 10,000.
Some of the survey’s findings:
• 86 percent hoped to increase their presence in India in the next three years.
• Only a few colleges had or were interested in having a branch campus in India.
• 46 percent of colleges with an operational presence in India rated their engagement to be good.
• While 85 percent of colleges had study abroad programs in India, only 20 percent said that engagement was good.
Those findings underscore the need for colleges without an international brand name to carve out a niche in a vast but potentially fruitful network of Indian students, Tuesday’s speakers said. That often leads to debates  about whether to hire recruiting agents – Cincinnati does but IUPUI does not – and how often to send campus officials to the targeted countries.
Swaraj Nandan works for KIC UnivAssist,  which helps American colleges expand their presence in India. He said the initial work in recruiting a base of Indian students can pay off with a self-perpetuating flow.
“Indian students, like everyone else, tend to travel in groups,” Nandan said. “Once you have that good number, they’re going to come by themselves.”