Asia
11:22 am
Tue January 10, 2012

In India, the pressure cooker of college admissions

Originally published on Wed January 11, 2012 7:41 am

This can be a harrowing time for high school seniors and their parents in the U.S. as they wait to hear from college admissions offices. But the pressure can be equally intense, if not more so in India, where the massive number of applicants and one make-or-break exam keeps students on edge.

Admission to Delhi University, one of India's most prestigious schools, is considered as tough, if not tougher than the process at many leading schools in the U.S.

"It's a very difficult game, given the numbers," says Dinesh Singh, the vice chancellor of Delhi University.

India has 1.2 billion people, he notes, and like most things in Indian life, getting one of the limited places at the best colleges is incredibly competitive.

Delhi University is an amalgam of 80 different colleges in the Indian capital, India's equivalent to Oxford and Cambridge in Britain or the Ivy League schools in the U.S.

All told, Singh has about 50,000 slots to fill with incoming students each year. It may sound like a lot, but it's just a small fraction of those applying.

For example, Delhi University's Shri Ram College of Commerce has just 400 slots and gets some 28,000 applicants each year. That means less than 2 percent of the applicants get in, an acceptance rate far lower than Harvard's.

The numbers are so large that most college admissions are based on a student's performance on a single set of exams.

"There's no way you could interview all of them," Singh says. "It's very difficult to give weight to other aspects of a student's career, and so you largely rely on the test scores."

Students complain that making college admissions dependent on a single set of test results is like gambling your career on a single throw of the dice.

Some Opt To Look Abroad

Saumya Swaroop is one of a growing number of students who are side-stepping the Indian system.

"It's because the system never made any sense to me, to be frank," she says, "because how can they actually judge the merit of a student on the basis of what happens in a six-hour-long exam?

Swaroop didn't even apply to India's top universities, aiming instead for American schools. She wound up winning a scholarship at Princeton.

Swaroop says India's top schools may be missing talented students who have a lot to offer but simply can't make the cut.

Many of the candidates for India's top colleges come from exclusive private high schools such the Delhi Public School.

Principal D.R. Saini graduated about 1,000 seniors last year, and he says more than 400 qualified for top foreign universities, including prestigious colleges in the United States.

Saini says that group included students who couldn't get into Delhi University.

"At the local level, our students have not been recognized and honored, and they have not been allowed to get admission," he says, "but at the global level, in the very best universities of the world, our students are competing and getting very desirable results."

The Numbers Keep Growing

The problem is not going to get any easier. More than 120 million Indians will reach college age in the next few years.

Saini says he supports efforts by India's education ministry to come up with more holistic ways to judge a student's performance.

Most colleges are already trying to get away from the exam-only system by offering places to students who come from underprivileged groups. They also relax the rules for talented athletes and students in the arts.

Delhi University's Dinesh Singh says there are far more opportunities open at lesser-known but equally worthy colleges that are part of his own institution. The problem, he says, is that Indian parents, like many in the United States, are obsessed with the most prestigious university brands.

"Parents insist and force their children to only try for those places," he says.

One way to ease the demand for top-flight education might be to allow foreign universities to establish branches in India. India's Cabinet is considering legislation that could make that possible.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. This can be a harrowing time for high school seniors and their parents waiting for responses to college applications, but it hardly compares to what high school students in India go through.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports that admission to India's top colleges is much tougher than it is even for Ivy League schools here.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Many of the candidates for India's top colleges come from exclusive private high schools like this one, the Delhi Public School. On the playing fields, girls and boys in white shirts and neckties play fierce games of cricket and badminton. It's a sort of warm-up for the intensity they'll have to put in to applying for universities.

The school graduated about 1,000 seniors last year, virtually all of whom went on to college. Mamta Sharma, the director of international admissions at the school, says that more than 400 of her graduates qualified for top foreign universities, including prestigious colleges in the United States. She says they fall into two categories.

MAMTA SHARMA: Some who are planning to go abroad, irrespective of Indian university criteria, et cetera. And the other group - they try for India and, if they don't get in, they go abroad.

FLINTOFF: Sharma says some very good students weren't able to get into the Indian colleges of their choice. India is a country of 1.2 billion people and, like most things in life here, getting one of the limited places at the best schools is incredibly competitive.

DINESH SINGH: So it's a very difficult game, given the numbers.

FLINTOFF: That's Dinesh Singh, the vice chancellor of Delhi University, an amalgam of 80 top colleges in the capitol city. It's India's equivalent to Oxford, Cambridge and the American Ivy League. All told, Singh has about 50,000 slots to fill with incoming students each year, but that's a drop in the bucket compared with the more than three million students who are trying to get into colleges throughout the country.

The numbers are so large that most college admissions are based not on a student's performance in high school, but on their scores on a single set of exams. Some colleges expect those scores to be in the high 90s or even 100 percent. Singh says there's simply no other way.

SINGH: There's no way you could interview all of them. Given the diversity, it's very difficult to give weightage(ph) to other aspects of a student's career, and so you largely rely on the test scores.

FLINTOFF: Students complain that making college admissions dependent on a single set of test results is like gambling your career on a single throw of the dice. Saumya Swaroop is one of a growing number of students who are sidestepping the Indian system. She didn't even apply to India's top universities, aiming instead for American schools. She's now on a scholarship at Princeton.

SAUMYA SWAROOP: You could say that the system never really made any sense to me, to be frank. It is - how can they exactly judge the merit of a student on the basis of what happens in a six-hour long exam?

FLINTOFF: Swaroop says India's top schools may be missing talented students who have a lot to offer but simply can't make the cut. The problem's not going to get any easier. More than 120 million Indians will reach college age in the next few years. One way to ease the demand for top flight education might be to allow foreign universities to establish branches in India. The government is considering legislation that could make that possible.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags: