What I found interesting in the world of higher education last week, with some added thoughts and views. I work for the Times of India Group. All views are personal.

A Rebuttal to Prof Steven Pinker

Prof Steven Pinker writes a fascinating rebuttal of William Deresiewicz’s searing Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League, apparently the most read article in the history of The New Republic. This is my rebuttal of Prof Pinker’s rebuttal.

Pinker’s essay is a cry for Harvard and other selective universities to return to an admissions process built solely on standardized testing (such as the SAT or a similar test which measures academic aptitude) away from the holistic admissions-based process that it has become now.

 As he states most eloquently –

“At the admissions end, it’s common knowledge that Harvard selects at most 10 percent (some say 5 percent) of its students on the basis of academic merit. At an orientation session for new faculty, we were told that Harvard “wants to train the future leaders of the world, not the future academics of the world,” and that “We want to read about our student in Newsweek 20 years hence” (prompting the woman next to me to mutter, “Like the Unabomber”). The rest are selected “holistically,” based also on participation in athletics, the arts, charity, activism, travel, and, we inferred (Not in front of the children!), race, donations, and legacy status (since anything can be hidden behind the holistic fig leaf). 
The lucky students who squeeze through this murky bottleneck find themselves in an institution that is single-mindedly and expensively dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. It has an astonishing library system that pays through the nose for rare manuscripts, obscure tomes, and extortionately priced journals; exotic laboratories at the frontiers of neuroscience, regenerative medicine, cosmology, and other thrilling pursuits; and a professoriate with erudition in an astonishing range of topics, including many celebrity teachers and academic rock stars. The benefits of matching this intellectual empyrean with the world’s smartest students are obvious. So why should an ability to play the bassoon or chuck a lacrosse ball be given any weight in the selection process? “


Dr Pinker’s plaintive plea comes even as China is initiating reforms in its dreaded university entrance exam, called GaoKao. “Under the new proposals, university admissions will rely less on the results of the two-day national exam, or gaokao, and more on standardised tests pupils take during their high school career.” There have been similar overtures in South Korea, which has its own version called Suneung.

Interestingly even as the Asian universities are keen to move their country beyond a “one-shot society”, Pinker is calling for Harvard et al to become like Asia – have a admissions system built around a standardized test. Curiously an old Time article anticipates this argument, stating “Across Asia, reformers are pushing to make schools more ‘American’ — even as some U.S. reformers render their own schools more ‘Asian’. In China, universities have begun fashioning new entry tests to target students with talents beyond book learning. And Taiwanese officials recently announced that kids will no longer have to take high-stress exams to get into high school.”

Most education systems that have rigorous admission process based on standardized testing, also tend to have a college experience where the student slacks off. This is captured appropriately in a slightly dated, though still relevant piece by an exchange student.

“One of the things you’ll soon realize is that, like many areas of Japanese life, college life is a bit different from what you’re used to. Generally speaking, in America college is the time to hunker down and hit the books, especially if employment later in life is something that appeals to you. For most Japanese students however, job placement is largely dictated by which university they get accepted to, not what they do there. This is why young Japanese students are world famous for studying themselves to exhaustion. Getting into a good junior high school means better chances of getting into a good high school, means better chances of getting into a good college. Thus, for Japanese college students, the battle is over and college is a time to have fun and relax. “So what do they do when they’re not studying?” you wonder. Well, basically they’re living it up. Most work part-time jobs in order to make money for the latest fashions. Dating and hanging out with friends are also very popular. Then there are clubs.” (Bold mine


The above is true of South Korea too. We can see the same in India in the IITs, (which has a dreaded entrance exam as well) where students pretty much coast along investing the minimum amount of time required in academics to graduate with a decent CGPA.

Why does this happen? Why should a rigorous admission process mean slacking off after entry? In my previous post, I spoke about signaling as one of the key services that universities offer. Now signaling is of two kinds as I stated in the post – one via admission, and the other at the time of graduation. The latter certifies that the student has persistence, diligence, ability to organize his or her thoughts, express an argument cogently, etc etc. In short that the student is ready for work and life.

As the signaling information provided by graduation (credentializing as it is called sometimes) improves, employers are happy to rely on this, as opposed to admission information, which is 4 years older. Credentialization signaling is so much richer and nuanced vs admission signaling which is dated, singular and also reflects some degree of income (to buy test prep services etc).  Thus, the education system’s willingness to invest in an inferior signaling system (standardized admissions and testing) reduces, and they become open to looking at holistic admissions process.

Sometimes, if the signaling power of admissions is very strong, and employers are happy to rely on it (after all that is the way they joined too and this kind of self-perpetuating thinking does settle in) – I quote once again “For most Japanese students however, job placement is largely dictated by which university they get accepted to, not what they do there” – then where is the incentive for universities to enhance the richness of their credentializing? Thus until the Samsungs and Mitsubishis change their hiring practice we are unlikely to see too much change or reform in South Korea or Japan.

I would also argue that educational practices such as rigorous admission tests in developing countries such as Iran, India – both of which have tough entrance exams along with mediocre educational infrastructure – have evolved because they have chosen intentionally to route signaling information through admissions. Given weak tertiary education infrastructure, there is no way any signaling can happen through credentialization. In such a case, it makes sense to have an extremely superior admissions signal.

Hence, to summarize

1)    Employers over time will prefer credentialization signals to admission signals – it is a one-way street in my view. Once signaling power moves from admissions to credentialization, it rarely comes back.
2)    Overinvesting in admissions signaling runs the risk of disincentizing credentialization
3)    Countries / education systems that have chosen to back admissions signaling typically have poor educational infrastructure and thus cannot drive signaling through credentialization.


Prof Pinker is mistaken if he thinks the clock at Harvard will turn back in favour of more standardized admissions process. And he is even more mistaken if he thinks the students who come in will be more academically-oriented and will attend his classes. Relieved on getting in, and knowing employers will make a beeline for them, they will probably party harder, to make up for what they missed preparing for Harvard.



Pretesting is one of the hot new concepts in pedagogy today.

Taking a test on Day 1 of a course, without any knowledge of the course content and even in unfamiliar subjects, “appears to improve subsequent performance” in the course. Why does this happen? It seems “the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions.” And it helps us overcome the “fluency illusion”. The detailed story is here


Bill Gates wants us all to learn history in a different way. Call it Big History. He is funding the introduction of Big History across high school curricula – this coming year, 15,000 students across 1,200 high schools will take the course, and even more the next year. Big History attempts to present a  unified view of  “history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields” with the goal of presenting a synthesized narrative. If anything, a course like this will help students “make sense between what happens with their first-period World History class and their second-period algebra class, third-period gym class, fourth-period literature — it’s all disconnected. Most kids experience school as one damn course after another; there’s nothing to build connections between the courses that they take”. Sal Khan spoke on this in his book The One World Schoolhouse where he refers to a balkanized curriculum where educators have intentionally severed connections between subjects and prefer that students study subjects in silos.  The story, incidentally written by financial writer Andrew Ross Sorkin is here.

While Big History is new to academia, we have occasionally made encounters with it before, typically in the form of books or TV serials. In the case of books, we have Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel where he looked at history through the lens of BioGeography, or Paul Colinvaux’s now forgotten masterpiece The Fates of Nations which looked at history through Ecology.


The fee for ghostwriting Chinese students’ college admission essays is $400 (Rs 25,000). . Seems low. I would have expected it to be higher, given the stakes involved.


US News & World Report’s annual college rankings is fuelling an unsustainable rating gaming arms race amongst US colleges. The sensible thing to do is for colleges to gang up and stop giving data, much like what Reed College did, argues Vox’s Libby Nelson.

One of the colleges mentioned in the above article is Northeastern University, based in Boston, which has jumped from #162 in US News’ 1996 rankings to #49 last year. It did this by (and this is in a ex-University President Richard Freeland’s words) “recalibrating the school to climb up the ranks. There’s no question that the system invites gaming. We made a systematic effort to influence [the outcome].” The story states Richard Freeland directed university researchers to break the U.S. News code and replicate its formulas. He spoke about the rankings all the time—in hallways and at board meetings, illustrating his points with charts. He spent his days trying to figure out how to get the biggest bump up the charts for his buck. He worked the goal into the school’s strategic plan. “We had to get into the top 100,” Freeland says. “That was a life-or-death matter for Northeastern.” Here is the article.


“Stanford is presumably Saks Fifth Avenue; the University of Wisconsin is perhaps Macy’s. Most national universities are essentially the department stores of higher education…schools with a specialized mission are more like the funky boutiques that appeal to one particular type of customer and are certainly not for everyone — but can be deeply satisfying to some.” A college admissions services co analyzes data from student transcripts, and finds that schools with a specialized mission such as Harvey Mudd, US Naval Academy etc rate higher on students preferences. Clearly, focus matters for universities too.


More developments on the turf far that is on between UGC and the IITs. India’s higher education regulator UGC says IITs should follow its directive over stopping four-year BS degrees, stating that “UGC is the only statutory body in the country to specify degrees in all domains of knowledge, including engineering, medicine, agriculture etc”.

The 16 IITs have argued that the UGC Act does not apply to them at all – they say they are autonomous engineering institutes of national importance governed by The Institutes of Technology Act, 1961 that lays down their powers, duties, framework for governance etc.

Now the UGC’s overlord, the Ministry of Human Resources Development wants to refer this regulatory kerfuffle to the Law Ministry. We do live in interesting times.

Meanwhile, some good news for the IITs. Pitchbook, a well-regarded PE/VC data services firm looked at VC-funded companies by education backgrounds of the founders, and ranked them on the basis of the number of founders / firms from a University. Not surprisingly Stanford is #1. Surprise, surprise IIT is at #4 ahead of even Harvard. But there is an error here, they have possibly aggregated founders across all the IITs – this isn’t correct as each of the 16 IITs function independently. It is as right as aggregating founders across all the University of California campuses.


Hyderabad  accounted for 15%  and the largest chunk by far, of the students who studied in the San Jose (Silicon Valley) area, on F-1 visas. These students aren’t going to Stanford. They are going to shady institutes like for-profit Herguan University, whose CEO is under the dock for visa fraud, or the somewhat more respectable International Technological University where 90% of  the full-time students are on F-1 visas.  As the article states “As far back as 2011, the Chronicle of Higher Education detailed a system where colleges including Herguan University, exploit byzantine federal regulations, enrolling almost exclusively foreign students and charging them upward of $3,000 for a chance to work legally in the United States. They flourish in California and Virginia, where regulations are lax.”


If the flipped classroom seems daunting to achieve, you could try the sideways classroom. Seriously. 

“The traditional model of teaching we’re familiar with is that of the teacher in front of the class, lecturing and assigning homework for students to do once they leave the classroom. “ 

The flipped classroom inverts the traditional model – “the teacher makes use of video lectures and interactive learning modules for students to examine whether inside or outside the classroom. Time with the class is better spent with practical lessons and group-based activities. The flip here is that students take in information at home, while spend their time at school performing applying concepts, aka ‘homework’, that’s meant to evaluate how well they’ve learned the lessons.”

If you don’t want to flip entirely, then the sideways classroom emerges as an intermediate approach.  “The sideways classroom utilizes online interactive teacher resources like a flipped classroom, but melds group tutoring and typical classroom discussion with after-school learning.”

More on this concept here.


On Sep 25, SWAYAM, a desi MOOC network will launch with courses from 7 universities including IIT Bombay, Delhi University etc. Somewhat similar to FutureLearn (www.futurelearn.co.uk), UK’s MOOC. I predict even lower completion rates, even lower interest from students on signing up, and eventually winding down in 5 years.

And on 11 Nov, the Ministry of Human Resources Development, which oversees Education in India plans to wi-fi enable 20 classrooms across 21,000 colleges enabling 15 million students to access the internet, albeit only for academically relevant sites, whatever that means. Source.


One explanation for higher productivity of blue-collar labour in developed countries. A culture of thinking.


Nalanda University, India’s newest university, has been ensconced in controversy over the past 3 years, primarily on account of the appointment of its Vice-Chancellor. 

Bihar Times from Patna has been following the controversy, though their coverage seems rather one-sided, through articles such as this and this ( ). 

Here is a more recent but broadly similar take from a right of centre website.

Having come this far, you may also find this interesting.  


ThinkTank Learning is the DE Shaw of US College Admissions services. Started by an ex-hedge fund analyst, Steven Ma, ThinkTank provides concierge services centred around US college admissions, to children of wealthy Chinese parents. A riveting read from Businessweek. Fascinating snippets abound

–       a U.S.-born high school senior with a 3.8 GPA, an SAT score of 2,000 (out of 2,400), moderate leadership credentials, and 800 hours of extracurricular activities, has a 20.4 percent chance of admission to New York University and a 28.1 percent shot at the University of Southern California. Those odds determine the fee ThinkTank charges that student for its guaranteed consulting package: $25,931 to apply to NYU and $18,826 for USC.
–       Ma writes “custom contracts,” like the one he struck with a Hong Kong CEO for his wayward son in Utah. After signing an agreement in May 2012, the family wired Ma $700,000 over the next five months—before the boy had even applied to college. The contract set out incentives that would pay Ma as much as $1.1 million if the son got into the No. 1 school in U.S. News’ 2012 rankings. (Harvard and Princeton were tied at the time.) Ma would get nothing, however, if the boy achieved a 3.0 GPA and a 1600 SAT score and still wasn’t accepted at a top-100 college. For admission to a school ranked 81 to 100, Ma would get to keep $300,000; schools ranked 51 to 80 would let Ma hang on to $400,000; and for a top-50 admission, Ma’s payoff started at $600,000, climbing $10,000 for every rung up the ladder to No. 1. Ma got $400K after the kid got into Syracuse.
–       Students in China and India take state entrance exams that determine their college options. “They don’t have much exposure to the concept of holistic admissions.” Beyond tutoring and test prep, ThinkTank employs about 30 college-admission consultants to help high school students enroll in advanced classes at community colleges, assist them in finding internships and volunteer groups, and even support parents struggling to disentangle their kids from video games. Come senior year, consultants brainstorm and edit essays to “strategically position” students’ voices and résumés.