Uncertainty Galore: How Deferments Have Upended Life Plans for Indian Grad Students

Taher Merchant had his future meticulously planned. The 26-year-old Mumbai resident was working for Uber Eats and decided to take his career to the next level with hopes of getting a degree in data analytics from Unitec Institute of Technology in New Zealand. Last year, he quit his job to work on college applications, got admission, and was all ready to move in June.

Then COVID-19 hit, and came the deferments. First to last November, then to March this year.

“I was stuck at home without a job and running through my savings,” Merchant told Re:Set. “It’s depressing. I can’t even explain how difficult it was. I started looking for a job in May, when I realized that COVID-19 would go on for a while. I was applying to 25-30 jobs a day, getting excited with any unknown incoming call. But there was nothing.”

As he applied for jobs on LinkedIn, Merchant’s parents didn’t understand what he did at home all day sitting on the computer. He found jobs which he would be perfect for, but in a COVID-19 ravaged economy, there was no call back. So when the lockdowns relaxed a bit, he started to venture out.

“You have to step out of your home for your own mental health,” he explained. “That money I had saved for three years was to manage expenses like rent when I was going to study, but one year without a job, I have to start that process again.”

“I was applying to 25-30 jobs a day, getting excited with any unknown incoming call.” Photo courtesy: Taher Merchant

After six months, Merchant got a job last month. Now he’s deferred his admission till 2022, as he needs to work for a year to save up again.

COVID-19 has caused a deferment pandemic. In the U.S., countless students have deferred in 2020. In MIT alone, 8% of first-year students deferred, from the usual 1% while 20% of Harvard freshmen opted to defer their admissions.

One of the key reasons is that the financials don’t add up to pay exorbitant international students fees only to study online. Even the U.S. government knows this, as one of President Joe Biden’s first acts has been to delay the payment of student loan debt.

Samir, name changed upon request, works at one of the biggest banks in the world. The Mumbai-based 26-year-old was supposed to start his MBA in fall of last year at one of the best management schools in the world, but delayed going because a large part of the first semester would be held virtually.

“Most importantly, I would’ve had to pay ₹1.5 to ₹1.8 crores ($200,000 to 250,000 USD) and 80-90% of that was a loan,” he told Re:Set. “My plan was to try to get a job in the U.S. after the course and pay off the loan. But people are really struggling to get jobs now, many of them being my friends. It’s going to be very difficult for those graduating this year or the next. They will have problems paying off the loans. I’m hopeful in two to three years it’ll get better.”

According to Akshay Chaturvedi, Founder and CEO of Leverage Edu, one of India’s biggest higher education consultancy platforms, universities are allowing mass deferments because the demand is picking up after a disastrous 2020.

“They understand that students can’t take two year gaps, especially those in their masters as it’ll affect their CV,” he told Re:Set. “Students will have to go either online or in person. How much can they defer for? They can’t put their career plans on hold forever.”

Chaturvedi added that these policies have never been this flexible, as the universities need this income and the governments are reforming immigration rules to aid them, “In the UK for example, now you can get a two year post study work visa, but only if you go by a certain date. They know they can dictate student behaviour now,” he said.

The result has been an even more competitive 2021 admission cycle, as the number of applicants to top U.S. universities has skyrocketed and acceptance rates have plummeted.

Mumbai native Adil Hussain was one of the people who couldn’t keep deferring, so he joined University of Madison-Wisconsin and has started his first in-person semester this month. It took him two months just to get a student visa appointment, and he didn’t even know when the flights were opening.

“The biggest stress has been the uncertainty,” he told Re:Set. “The U.S. government keeps changing directives on immigration on an almost daily basis. Universities don’t have clarity.”

“But how much could I have waited for?” he asked.

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