Is It Worth It?
Over the last few weeks the US college admissions press has been buzzing about claims made by former US Education Secretary, William Bennett, that there are only 150 colleges worth attending in the US. Mr. Bennet has a number of reasons for making this claim, but Indian applicants tend to approach the equation over the value of a US education slightly differently.
In the US, students are debating whether to go to college at all, or whether to spend a lot of money, and in many cases incur significant debt, for a well-percieved college or take the local, low-cost option. So should these questions and debates influence the perspectives of Indian students who want to study abroad?
Mr. Bennett evaluates the worth of a college degree by the amount of money earned upon graduation. Indeed this usually top of mind for most Indian applicants – families are investing a significant amount of money to send their children abroad and they expect the students secure good jobs and earn well upon graduation. But for Indian applicants there is also the consideration of expanding a child’s opportunities, widening their peer group and giving them global exposure. The experience, rather than the skills, of studying abroad is what will set students apart from Indian-educated counterparts. And it is often this experience which allows them to demand higher salaries — for example students educated abroad who have gotten relevant internship or research experience can demand higher salaries and more responsibility in their roles.
The second consideration relates to the question of second or third tier colleges. In his book, Mr. Bennett claims that beyond the top 10 colleges (Ivy leagues and a few others) a student is better off attending a large, public research university. This stance in consistent with a Wall Street Journal survey of employers who, in their ranking of the best colleges for recruiting, named only one Ivy league University (Cornell) and identified students from public colleges as being better prepared for the workforce. But in general, measuring the quality of education across different colleges is difficult because a lot depends on the course being taken – in engineering, for example, you may be able to take very similar classes and solve similar problems at both a top ranked and a large public college (think Stanford and UIUC). However, when it comes to English literature a small liberal arts college with published faculty who directly connect with students, may offer a productive and inspiring network upon graduation that is not available at an institution with lesser-known faculty. Various scenarios are endless, so Mr. Bennett’s assertion should not be taken at face value when choosing your college.
If the news about the 150 colleges has got you spooked about spending the time, effort and money to study abroad, here is what I suggest. Choose colleges that are better than your alternatives if you stay in India and identify that criteria for yourself (for some it may be the desire for a liberal arts exposure that drives them, for others a meaningful science research and laboratory experience). If your alternative does not inspire you, then you may be better off attending college abroad. And if you plan to work abroad even for a short period before returning to India, you may be better off looking at a well reputed large public college with a strong reputation for placements of international students. And finally the Wall Street Journal survey of employers also revealed that employers are mostly concerned with what a student can do, and not the name on their diploma. So by all means do something great no matter where you end up.