A few days ago, I was at dinner with a group that included a bunch of kids who were just in the process of finishing high school. I came to 2 conclusions by the end of the conversation: (i) I am getting older than I like to admit, and (ii) kids these days are quite different from when we were of that age. Not much I can do about (i) so I’ll continue to be regular at the gym and keep buying brightly colored clothes to hide the fact for as long as possible. However (ii) was more interesting and I wanted to share my observations.

Two things worth pointing out at the outset, that may have some influence on my observations – (i) these kids were from Delhi, which is culturally much further from Chennai than the Indian map could indicate, and (ii) these kids are obviously from a significantly wealthier circumstances than most of my peer group. Now most of us have been given to expect that rich kids from Delhi have a predisposition for driving drunk through the city in large German cars indiscriminately killing cops or shooting models in bars. These kids didn’t fit that profile at all – they seemed to be balanced, well behaved and mature individuals. They had better taste in clothes than we did and certainly seemed more world wise. More impressive was that they also seemed like very hard working and focused individuals, proven by their excellence at academics or sport.

What I found most fascinating was their complete lack of interest in studying in America. Almost everyone in my high school class aspired to study in the US – most made it there for their undergraduate studies and those who didn’t went across later for their post-graduate work. The biggest deterrent to studying abroad at that time was the prohibitive cost but it seemed quite obvious that these kids would have no trouble with this. Despite this, most of them wanted to go to college in India, at least for their undergraduate studies. More probing indicated that some were considering going to the UK and if pushed might be prepared to consider Australia – but none of them had taken the SAT or had any aspiration whatsoever to even consider going to America. They indicated reasons such as physical distance from India, visa problems, perceptions of increasing Xenophobia, cost, 4 years vs 3 years, number of non-core classes required and a few others. Hardly convincing given Australia is not much closer, the UK is not much cheaper and at that age, whats an extra year and why would someone not want to find an excuse to study art history or philosophy? The clear feeling that I got was that the sheen has been rubbed off from the ‘idea’ of an American education. These things are heavily peer-group driven – it is highly unlikely I would have aspired to study in the US had my entire class not acted like it was the obvious thing to do. If kids generally these days are not aspiring to study in America, it will quickly have a snowball effect on the number of applications from India. The statistics right now suggest that the post 9/11 drop in applications has been reversed – but a change in attitude takes some time to translate to a change in numbers.

These must be many factors contributing to this change. These must surely include (i) treatment of foreigners post 9/11, (ii) our own perception of the education (and subsequent jobs) available at home, and (iii) more open parenting attitude (i.e. no motivation to get away from strict parents). If this trend is isolated to the group that I met or limited to Delhi kids from wealthy families, it is probably irrelevant – however, if it is (or turns into) a broader phenomenon, it could have some quite serious implications for the US. For decades, America has seriously benefited from the fact that intelligent and hard working kids from across the globe went there to study (and often stay back and work). If these kids now start staying home or going elsewhere, the implications could be quite serious, on the economy as well as the spread of the ‘American way’ that is inevitably brought back by those returning after their studies or a few years of work.

No longer the dream?