In 2022, there was a 68% increase in Indian students going abroad to study. The year saw over 7.5 lakh Indians going abroad for higher education. This was the highest number of students that went abroad in six years. The aspiration for foreign education among students and parents is only increasing.
While this was restricted to mostly metro cities even a few years ago, now students from Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities plan for foreign education too.
Viral Doshi, who has been an educational consultant for more than two decades, feels that the change is because of increased affluence in India. In a conversation with The Core, Doshi said, “In the 1980s and 1990s, 95 percent of the students I mentored were in the metros, now it’s virtually 50-50. What’s even more remarkable is that the ratio of boys to girls is 3:1 today.”
Doshi, who began consulting, more as a hobby, than anything else in the mid-1980s when Indian parents had begun to see the value of sending their wards out of India for higher studies, has a degree from Cornell and has over the last 35 years built his practice and reputation as the Shah Rukh Khan of Ivy League admissions, a moniker given by this writer in a previous piece on him.
Indian parents from Dubai, Singapore, London and New York would regularly fly into Mumbai for several years to consult him before he opened offices in these cities, besides his home base of Mumbai.
In a year, Doshi does psychometric testing and mentoring for almost 1500-2000 students to help them identify what they might be best suited for career-wise and with his small team assists around 150-200 students to head overseas, usually to some of the most competitive colleges including several of the Ivy Leagues.
A changing and vastly altered India over the last three decades is captured through his countrywide lens in this detailed conversation with Anjuli Bhargava.
Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
Q: Back when you started, your students were primarily based in India’s large urban cities and surrounding pockets. How and why has this been changing?
A: With increased affluence, education follows. The number of schools in India — be it IB or even A levels — has proliferated but the number of good colleges is lagging behind quite sharply. As I understand it, IB schools in India are almost 210 at present.
There are international schools in Raipur, Rajkot, Surat and in many instances, these schools are offering an education almost on par with an Ambani, Cathedral, Shriram or Vasant Valley. There is of course a severe shortage of trained competent and high-quality IB teachers but many schools are mushrooming that give a reasonably international flavor to the teaching they impart. This might change as IB schools in India grow as they are expected to and the first batch of IB-educated students come back and teach here.
A big change I am seeing as a consequence is the reduced gap in the final product - in this case students - from the smaller cities like Vizag, Surat, Jamnagar, Lucknow et al and those from the metros. This gap has narrowed from around 90 percent just five to seven years ago to 10 percent today. Their thinking process, aspirations but even more their ability to articulate themselves, enunciate their goals and the agency to achieve them has surpassed all expectations. In the 1980s and 1990s, 95 percent of the students I mentored were in the metros, now it’s virtually 50-50. What’s even more remarkable is that the ratio of boys to girls is 3:1 today. Earlier, smaller-town parents didn’t even think of sending their girls overseas for studies. Spending on an overseas education was almost always only for the boys.
Moreover, I find admissions into the best places are getting skewed in their favour. American and other foreign universities were always keen on students from small town India as it helps promote diversity but now the balance is tilting in their favour. These students appear to have more fire in their belly than their big-city counterparts and this is appreciated by the institutions they apply to.
But the diversity in the kind of parents I meet blows me away. A few days back, a government contractor from Bhubaneswar came to meet me, keen to send his child overseas. I would never have met a parent from such diverse backgrounds and cities two decades ago.
Q: Is America losing its sheen to some extent as far as higher education goes? More and more Indian students seem to be heading to the UK, Netherlands, Canada and Australia for their undergraduate degrees.
A: As far as Indian students go, I don’t think so. These other countries have chipped away at some of the pie but a majority of Indian students still head to the US. I’d say in a single year if 7,000 Indian students head out for overseas higher studies, 70-75% head to America and around 25% to the remaining basket of countries.
But there are two other reasons for this change. One, it has become increasingly competitive to get into the premier colleges in the US. Acceptance rates for Boston University, UPen, NYU and USC are down from 52%, 20%, 32% and 30% in 2005 to 11%, 4.1%, 8% and 11.5% respectively in 2023. So, securing a place has become that much harder.
Then, countries like the UK and others have eased work rules and visa restrictions. More recently, in the UK, they are allowing a student to work for two years post a degree, making it more attractive for the Indian diaspora. The UK is allowing students from certain American universities to come and work there for two years as well. This too has become a draw. An Indian student thinks that if I don’t get a job or have a visa problem in the US, I can still go and work in the UK under this dispensation.
But the big change I see is that a majority of the Indian students who go overseas to study come back now and in some cases turn entrepreneurial, thanks to the focus on start-ups. This is totally a departure from the 1980s and 1990s when most of those who went, stayed and lived the American dream, and saw no or very few opportunities for themselves in India. Unlike two decades ago, today’s parents are also more open to colleges in India — the new liberal art colleges but in the science stream, the options remain quite limited as securing admission in an IIT or one of these institutions remains a huge challenge. The funnel is narrowing so more and more parents have no option but to look overseas.
Q: Have the US colleges outpriced themselves to some extent?
A: There’s no doubt that the cost of American education has gone up substantially from US $ 80,000-100,000 a year, all-inclusive. But so has affordability. Moreover, Indian parents will still stretch themselves if required.
This may be a debate among the American college-going population but in fact, I find that less and less students in India ask or require financial aid unlike two decades ago. Earlier, when I was working with students, a majority of them sought financial aid. With increasing affluence, Indian students no longer seek financial aid.
Also, two decades ago a majority of my kids were from business families, now a majority is professionals. These parents are high achievers and are ambitious for their children too. An interesting trend I have seen is that many kids going overseas are now legacy kids whose parents went themselves in the 1970s and 1980s. Earlier, I had very few legacy kids since that meant their parents had to have gone to study in the 1940s or 1950s which was rare. But now, I see many parents who have benefitted from their overseas education keen to give their wards a similar experience.
Q: What are some of the negatives you see? In many affluent school circles, there appears to be in this race to outdo each other and keep up with the Joneses…
A: Yes, on this front, I am quite concerned and feel that the time has come to counsel parents to lower and keep their expectations more realistic. Many times parents want to push their children to apply to colleges - perhaps to realize their own ambitions - even when one can see there’s no fit. It’s a bit like they want their son who is 5 foot three inches to marry Miss Universe who is 6 foot three inches : it can’t and won’t happen! In this game of rising affluence and aspirations, I find at times it’s become some kind of0 cocktail circuit upmanship rather than aiming for what’s best for their child.
And even if the child gets into where the parents aspire on the fluke chance, can he or she cope with the competition? This can damage a child’s confidence. Many parents are seeking help from consultants only for “profile building” for their wards and colleges are seeing through this. This is getting particularly bad in the metros whereas in Tier 2 and Tier 3, the focus remains on academic and all around development and this could be one reason that the balance is tilting in their favor.
Parents need to understand that profile building will not get their children into the best institutions but sterling academics. And when I say academics I don’t mean only good exam results but a well-rounded and balanced portfolio which includes debates, sports et al. There are no shortcuts. Also, putting too much pressure on your kids is counterproductive as they can crack under it.
Q : Hasn’t the demand for education consultants gone through the roof? Even Tier 3 and 4 cities and towns have consultants offering to send students overseas…one hears instances of fly-by-night players cheating parents and students….
A : This is a big problem area. I find students above all need mentoring : what should I do and once I identify that, how should I go about doing it? Unfortunately, a majority of the outfits and firms - this a highly fragmented and unregulated space - are focussed on study abroad and many of these are surviving on charging a fee from the colleges to send students to them. There are others - Madhavi Desai, The Red Pen, Oncourse to name a few - who are doing genuine and serious work but there has been a mushrooming of regional and other players where it is not always clear what value they are adding. There have also been instances of cheating or misleading parents who might be less aware or gullible to some extent.
I have been talking to other consultants who are doing good work to see if we can set up an association of independent consultants, certified and endorsed by the government, to separate the wheat from the chaff. They should be required to go through some training and be held accountable for the services they provide for the fee charged. Regular monitoring to ensure they follow an ethics code. This is my dream project that I hope I can pull off over the next five years after garnering support from other genuine players in the field.