July 6, 2006 12:03:56 am
The Indian government’s move to reserve a greater percentage of seats for disadvantaged groups in institutions of higher education will heighten the already merciless competition for a place in a good college.
Competition appears to be intense everywhere, not just in India, as I found out this June when I had an opportunity to understand the college admission process in the US. There too elite education is highly competitive and parents are spending anything from $15,000 to $40,000 to get their children into Ivy League institutions.‘Coaching’ for the college admission process has become pervasive, with consultants charging up to $350 an hour, as much as a lawyer’s rate! But this apart, there is not much in common between the Indian and American systems.
One of the major differences lies in how the two countries think about inclusiveness and diversity of the student body. Our system has focussed on achieving social justice through mandatory quotas. Through this we hope to target the poor and lower castes. In its initial phases, the US system of affirmative action was also focussed on including the Blacks, who were poor and discriminated against. While the system of affirmative action there still attempts to include those from groups with less representation in higher education and thus ensure more equal life chances for all, the understanding of inclusion has become broader, and the goal of universities there now is to make classrooms more diverse. And this means diversity in terms of class, race, gender, ethnicity and many other possible sources of difference.
That this definition continues to evolve in changing circumstances (there are now Chinese, Japanese, Korean and South Asian students in significant numbers), is demonstrated by the fact that the system is already set to balance the sex ratio in favour of boys, knowing that the current ratio of girl to boy applicants is 60:40. Another interesting aspect of the system is how it deals with the concept of merit. Contrary to the only way of measuring merit in the Indian education system — ie, through high marks — the US system operates on a much more broad-based approach. While some common requirements and guidelines exist for admission, various colleges and universities can exercise plenty of freedom in their choice of students. The common factors are SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) I and II, the high school transcripts and a record of extra-curricular activities. All institutions take these three into account with varying weights. None of these, however, is evaluated in a mechanical way. Thus, marks of a student are evaluated in terms of the type of school he/she attended, the opportunities offered there and the extent to which the student took advantage of opportunities/resources. So, a Black student coming from a poor inner-city school and doing extremely well, would receive a higher weight than a white kid doing very well in a rich school.
The focus of the US is on selecting the ‘individual’ and for this evaluating his/her potential as a student is necessary. Often, the part of the evaluation process that swings the acceptance of a student is the essay that he/she writes. The essay is supposed to be able to convey a sense of the individual student, of their talents and potential. The US system is looking for creativity, of any sort, be it in the sciences, arts, or even in areas such as humour or community involvement — talents that make a healthy society. Students too pick universities — in that they make judgments about small or large colleges, open or structured curriculum, conservative or liberal social environments. In the end, it is the fit that counts.
While the individual may be the focus of the admission process, equal importance is given to the peer group; hence the emphasis of the admission committees on what they call “building a class”. And this is where concepts of diversity and evaluation of merit come together. Merit is not simply SAT or school scores. It is how the particular individual adds up as a totality in relation to what the college is looking for. What is meant by diversity also differs. It is not simply one’s colour, or one’s poverty-stricken status, or where one comes from, but anything that makes one student stand out or be different.
For this reason, many US universities also encourage a semester of study abroad. In a class that is racially, ethnically, economically, geographically and culturally diverse as well as diverse in terms of the talents of its members, the students stand to learn as much from other students as from their teachers. Perhaps American innovativeness is related to these diverse interactions that take place in the setting of a good university.
The writer is associate professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi
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