Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Thoughts about Undergraduate Education

I’ve written about students and opportunities for undergraduate study in the U.S. before, but the subject has been on my mind again lately, in part because this is “back to school” season here in Hyderabad and also because it’s peak student visa season at the Consulate.  In the next  six months, we hope to establish an office of the U.S.-India Educational Foundation (USIEF) at the Consulate which will focus its efforts on helping students in Andhra Pradesh to find appropriate educational programs in the U.S.   I’m hopeful that USIEF’s efforts will mean that at this time next year, we’ll have even more demand for visas for students to pursue undergraduate education in the U.S.—and much higher rates of visa approval for these students, who will have well-considered educational plans.

The other day I read an article about the grueling schedules secondary school students endure in India as they prepare to compete for the critical exams that will determine their university placement.  The journalist reported that it’s not uncommon for students to study 12 or more hours a day, six days a week, and often sacrifice other interests, including sports, social interaction and cultural activities, because they just don’t have time. 

It struck me how different that stress is from the pressures facing American high school students who want admission to the top universities in the U.S.   They enhance their prospects by putting more time onto extracurricular activities, like sports, fine arts, and volunteering in the community.

For Indian students, results in examinations that test knowledge seem to be the dominant factor in university admissions.  For American students, the picture is more complicated.  Colleges and universities make an initial, quantitative assessment of candidates by looking at a combination of grades in high school and results in examinations that test literacy and analytical skills.  On that basis, they narrow their pools of applicants, but final decisions only come after they look at a variety of other factors, including references, essays, interviews, and records of extracurricular activities.  Of course, students who completely neglect studying will have poor grades in high school, and some studying may be useful to prepare for the SAT exam.  But a bright, motivated student can excel on both without putting in anything like the number of hours that Indian students spend absorbing the vast body of knowledge that they will be tested on. 

When I was in high school in the U.S. in the 1970s, sports was by far the most important extracurricular activity that could help a high school student gain admission to a competitive university, but today the focus is wider.  Participation in fine or performing arts is a plus, as is a record of leadership.  At selective schools, there is increasing preference for students who have demonstrated a sense of social responsibility by participating in volunteer activities.  And references, essays and interviews have real weight in the process.  American universities are looking for future leaders, innovators, and communicators, not just those who will excel in academics, and they use all these indicators to help identify the most promising applicants.

The big difference between the criteria students in India are familiar with and the way the American system works may be intimidating for Indian students thinking about pursuing undergraduate education in the U.S.  The other big barrier is the high cost of U.S. universities.  As a result, many students look for help and advice on where to apply.  The U.S. government has a student advising service called Education USA.  Education USA throughout India works through the U.S.-India Educational Foundation, which is jointly sponsored by the U.S. and Indian governments, and provides free advice and resources for prospective students.  Their website is:  USIEF.org.in.  They also have a toll-free student advising telephone number 1-800-103-1231.  We’ve found, however, that many students don’t know about the services of USIEF and Education USA, and instead they turn to many other educational consultants.  Some of these consultants may be knowledgeable and effective, but many of them have a conflict of interest because they accept funds from universities when they steer students in their direction.  Some also provide poor advice, and encourage students to misrepresent their circumstances during visa interviews.  I’m pleased that we will be opening an office of USIEF at the Consulate in the coming months.  USIEF will help students find the schools that best meets their objectives and will be able to help students understand the process of applying for financial aid.

I hope that Indian students will also become more aware in the future about some of the special opportunities that exist in the U.S., for example, for female student athletes.  The U.S. may be unique in the value that universities place on participation in sports.  Critics accuse some of the biggest universities in the U.S. of exploiting athletes by enrolling those who excel in high-profile sports like basketball and football as students despite the fact that their grades and test scores suggest they have little potential to meet normal academic standards.  For those who use college as a springboard to become professional athletes, the system works; for unqualified students and those who can’t take advantage of educational opportunities and who don’t make it to the next level, the accusation of exploitation is difficult to refute.  But there are others who benefit from this.  U.S. legislation requires that colleges provide young women as many athletic scholarships as they provide to young men.  As a result, universities maintain women’s teams and provide financial support to girls who combine academic and athletic achievements.  When I was in Zimbabwe, I was pleased to see that a number of Zimbabwean girls received scholarships to study in the U.S. while playing field hockey.  These young women have a chance to participate in sports, but they also get a quality education, and I hope more Indian girls will also take advantage of this scholarship opportunity.  


  1. I would like to say,how much more the U.S can contribute if American colleges/academia were to influence honesty/academic rigor in Indian academia.Standards are loose,exams so easy that a humongous number of people get A+ grades,thus missing out on opportunity to separate wheat from chaff. As a former prof surely you recognize the importance of grading/academic rigor/plagiarism/etc,as well as fewer courses but more homework.
    American colleges cover in 1 course what Indians take 4 to do

  2. This is certainly a really good post..but guess it has more to deal with the cultural upbringing..In India from the very beginning the only thing every parent focuses on is studies, the situation is so bad that even if a child is playing at state level, parents will most certainly bar him/her for carrying on engineering or medical studies....

    On the flip side of it, when Indian students go for higher studies to places such as the USA..they of course have a strong academic record...GPA/ top GMAT GRE score...but very less of anything else on their profiles...and that kind of set the expectation wrongly for the top US universities also...US universities some how got into the trap of high GMAT/GRE scores and only wish to admit an Indian student with high score...on the expanse of someone who has an avg./low gmat/gre score but otherwise very active in extracurriculars or sports or social activities...To be really frank haven't seen much success stories from an Indian with extraordinary profile with low GMAT/GRE score..

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