The college admission scandal in the US has been something of a revelation to those Indian parents well-heeled enough to be seeking the same hallowed halls for their progeny. For the uninitiated, it turns out wealthy families in the US function no differently from wealthy Indians who buy seats by paying huge capitation fees for admission into engineering and medical colleges here. After news broke that rich Americans have paid millions to rig admissions at Ivy League colleges, investigations exposed the thriving industry manufacturing fake test scores, fake athletic achievements and fraudulent work experience to assist those with enough money and cunning.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone in India: who can forget images of parents climbing into examination halls with ladders and answer chits to enable their children to clear medical exams in Bihar? At least in the West, the propping up of teenagers to magically convert them into responsible adults appears to end at college. In India, it’s perfectly acceptable for parents to try to wield control throughout their children’s lives. After post-grad, they manouveuer them towards whatever they think the right career path is. If the young adult is lucky, the interference may end after they’ve had their say in choosing an appropriate spouse. I am at that stage where everyone I seem to know has kids on the cusp of adulthood. There’s no escaping people discussing their children’s academic futures. If IB is the way to go, what options there are for STEM and the frightening number of strings that need to be pulled for the right internships, or how to wing the least cliched social service. From what I can see, rich teenagers (and their parents) in Delhi and Mumbai become walking talking college applications, their lives consumed by a staggering number of tutors, SAT prep classes and career counsellors, whose job, besides guiding students towards the right institutions, is also to motivate them to get a 95% in the boards.
I’m beginning to see what a blessing it was for my generation of Indians that our parents couldn’t afford us a foreign education and were so busy making a living themselves, that we were spared this nightmarish over-parenting. In the ’80s and ’90s, most of us were told that if we didn’t score well in school, we’d end up in Hastinapur College, with no future whatsoever. It was enough to ensure we put in the work. Otherwise, we were left largely to our own devices to make what we could of our youth, stumbling into careers more by chance than strategy. There is no denying that market forces are at play here; in a world where jobs are drying up, a degree from an elite college gives you an advantage over the competition. There is also the fact that anything less than 97% isn’t enough to ensure a seat in any half decent Indian university, and parents are left with no choice but to look westwards.
According to the US embassy website, the number of Indian students studying in the US is over 186,000 at the graduate level, a growth of 12% in the last year. The question, however, is, what lengths should parents be going to, to secure these admissions and is it really worth it? There’s a real chance that you handicap a child’s ability to be independent by creating these contrived accomplishments. Parents in India treat foreign college admissions with the attitude that if you throw enough money at the problem, it’ll go away. It’s partly true. However, the right tutor may get you to ace a SAT exam but there’ll be no one to turn to when you have to deal with other problems like crushing loneliness when you’re finally in university. Or, more pertinently, when you have to hand in a paper way above your capability level.
Reaching somewhere you were aiming at for years, only to discover the vast gap between where you are and what you really deserve, can be soul crushing. Everybody, but teenagers especially have to be left to discover their own level of competence—and come to terms with it. Unfortunately, the general consensus is there’s no point being rich if your kid is going to Hastinapur College. Children’s entry into elite institutions are a reflection above all, of wealth of course, but also of parenting. It would be wise to remember that eventually they’ll be on their own with ample opportunity to mess up those paths, so meticulously laid out for them.