Every once in a while, in parties, at coffee klatsches with friends, and in business meetings, I hear this line. It is typically said by those whose kids are in middle grade, all in premier schools, usually of the IB ilk. It is usually to the tune of “I got into IIT / IIM but my son / daughter is unlikely to”. Sometimes, it is followed up with a question, typically along the line of “Is U.S. the only alternative?” But more often, it is a statement, an acknowledgement of how an entire generation of India’s white collar elite is preparing their children for a path alternate to theirs.

It is the equivalent of how an Ivy League grad dismisses the chances of his kids making it to the Ivies themselves, or to take a European example, the graduate of a Grande Ecole rejecting the prospect of his kids getting in there. Why is this happening? Why have people like us turned our backs on the IITs / IIMs?

Historically, the idea of ‘merit’ in India has been linked to the ability to ace extremely selective entrance tests – 1.3 million high school students write the JEE-Mains, the first step in getting one of the ~10,000 seats in the IITs, that is an acceptance rate of <1%). The IIM numbers are slightly less selective – about ~170K take the CAT for about ~3,500 seats, a selectivity rate of >2%. This is unlike, say in the West, where admission is linked to an evaluation process that measures a student’s holistic development. In India, as in other Asian countries such as China, Korea, Japan, Iran and even Turkey, admission to elite institutions is linked to performance on these 1-2 tests.

Today’s white collar elite in India are almost entirely those who cleared selective entrance tests. From the 70s – 00s, we were comfortable with this intensely competitive race to the top. However, something has changed in the last 5-10 odd years.

For one, we have started seeing the emergence of new-age schools in the metros. These are typically IB or International schools (though in Delhi, many are CBSE board-affiliated as well) and they offer a modicum of luxury, such as air-conditioning that we didn’t have. More importantly they encourage all-round development and go beyond rote learning. Increasingly India’s white collar elite have sought admission into these schools for their kids.

Secondly, we are also beginning to see success stories that deviate from the engineer-doctor script. Everybody knows a hairdresser or animation artist raking in the shekels, and an engineer who seems stuck in a low-end bodyshopping job.

Propelled by the above two trends, and aided by the fact that most of our children are growing up in significant comfort, unlike in our times, there is a distinct lack of competitive hunger, or at least the kind that is required for tests such as the JEE or CAT. Increasingly these tests are dominated by lower-middle families in metros or middle / upper-middle class families from Tier 2 or Tier 3 towns.

For those at the apex, be it CEOs or Partners in consulting & law firms, if you can’t sent your kids to the ‘best’ in India, you can think of sending him or her abroad for higher studies. But what about those parents who cant afford the 30-40 lacs (sans scholarship) needed annually to send their kids abroad? Where do they go?

At one time, Delhi University’s colleges and National Law Schools were an option. But increasingly these have also got insanely competitive. So you have a scenario where you are beginning to see growing numbers of kids with various smarts, but are ill-suited for rote learning and test-taking, backed by affluent parents who want nothing but the best for them.

So, how is the educational market responding?

In three broad ways.

  1. We are seeing the emergence of a new breed of institutions – I call them Corporate-Backed Universities (CBUs) – such as Ashoka, OP Jindal, BML Munjal etc – to accomodate these bright students
  2. We are seeing a questioning of the assumption that merit = acing entrance tests. Merit’s definition is expanding to accomodate a well-rounded personality, ability to communicate and think critically etc., akin to how it is in the U.S. Increasingly we are beginning to see the newer institutions such as Ashoka, Shiv Nadar use these holistic evaluation measures in admitting students
  3. Rise of alternate signalling mechanisms such as Young India Fellowship, Vedika Scholars Program etc., In this category, I might even add the emergence of MBA programs such as those of ISB which are accepted by corporates but outside the regulatory pale.

All of the above is clearly led by the need to tap the market for the affluent and bright progeny of people like us. The market senses that this is an underserved segment and is responding to meet this segment’s needs. Thus, the higher education market in India is quickly evolving into a two-track market, one where merit = clearing entrance tests, and the other where merit = assessment of the complete personality.

CBUs have huge tailwinds behind them. As enrollment rises in the so-called ‘international schools’ – a recent TOI story said that the number of IB schools had increased 10-fold in the past 10 years – clearly a lot of the parents putting their kids in these schools will be middle-class parents, who may not be able to afford the Rs 1.0 – 1.5crs needed for an international degree. These parents will find well-run CBUs a natural alternative. CBUs are also helped by the decline in the brand value of IITs in general, given the rapid expansion of the brand in the many remote locations it has been set up in.

To capitalize on this trend, CBUs need to base their selection or admission on holistic evaluation criteria – use SAT scores, essays, interviews etc., and avoid using entrance exams as criteria to select students. The idea is not to be subjective or less rigorous. It is rather to move to multi-dimensional assessment of the student. And as long as your criteria for selection is well-defined and the selection process is transparent, the process will be viewed as rigorously as the JEE. An example is the Rhodes Scholarship selection process. Is it subjective? Yes, within bounds. Is it seen as a fair and rigorous selection process? You bet!

In this regard, I like how IIMA, under Dr Ashish Nanda, is modifying the admission criteria to bring in more diversity – non-engineers and women, without making it look as if standards are being diluted.

Lastly, I would hazard that a holistic evaluation and admission criteria also allows an institution to co-opt more and more of the elite of a country. A strict admission criteria such as what the IITs follow allows you to only co-opt a certain percentage of the academic elite. But then what about the sporting elite or the cultural elite, or even the political elite? The criteria followed by U.S. universities allows all kinds of an elite to be co-opted and thus become supporters of the institution. This, I think, is a unique advantage that the CBUs will have over government-managed institutions such as, the IITs and NITs.


Pramath Sinha, Founding Dean of ISB, a Trustee of Ashoka University, and a leading Higher Education consultant, reviewed this post, and shared the following “Even CBUs are governed by RTIs and Supreme Court directives since they have been approved by the government. So lot of pressure to not have holistic criteria but only objective ones.” This pressure is not a positive one for CBUs and for the indian urban middle-class.