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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Why are Parents Confused about College Choices

In July, 2015, I was at the Pan IIT Conference in Santa Clara, US. In one of the chat session, the legendary Vinod Khosla said something close to my heart. Let me paraphrase him and change the context from Silicon Valley to India:

"It is understood that you need to live comfortably, that you would want to rent a decent house, and eventually buy an apartment, that you would want to buy a car, have all the modern amenities in your home, take care of all your responsibilities like childrens' education in good places, supporting parents in their old age (including their medical bills), save some for a rainy day, have a vacation every year, and you can add a few more things that you really want to enjoy. This will translate to securing a decent job after your education. But once you have achieved all this, what next. Would you want the second house, a third car, a fourth iphone, more jewellery, and so on, or would you then think of jobs that you enjoy doing. May be the job that you like is also the job that gives you lot more money. But if there is a choice between doing something not so enjoyable but getting lots of money, and doing something that you enjoy and still getting money greater than your threshold for comfortable life, what would you prefer."

I am sure, if the question is asked in this fashion, most people would say that they would follow their interest once they are reasonably secure financially. But do they mean it.

In our country, someone starting with a salary of 4-5 lakhs and a decent growth (say, 5% more than inflation) would mean that everything that we have written above could be done very easily. In fact, one could start at even lower figures and grow from there. And pretty much every discipline in any good institute would enable a good student to get these levels of jobs. So the placement question that every parent is so interested in should really boil down to whether the median salary of the graduates is more than 4 lakhs or not. And beyond that, the student should be free to decide the program and college. But we all know that is not the case. Parents and students are easily excited about large salaries and do not even attempt to figure out what they might like.

Often, the goal is to earn the maximum. The optimization function is the money to be earned over the next 50 years. Unfortunately, this function is very difficult to compute. We don't even know what jobs and careers would be there 10 years from now, what to talk about 50 years. An average person will not remain in the same career for so long, and indeed people change careers every 10-15 years. So what is needed for success is not a particular discipline, but the ability to learn new things. Even if you happen to be in a low paying career in the beginning, when the time comes to change your career, you could then pick up a better paying career, if you had the ability to learn. On the other hand, if you do not pick up the ability to learn, being in the highest paying career is of no use if you are going to lose that job in 10 years.

So from monetary point of view, one should look for education which gives a decent start and prepare you for change of careers (or teaches you the most important skill of self-learning). Again, it would seem that pretty much any discipline in any good institute would meet this requirements.

Since it is pretty obvious to anyone that earnings over the next 50 years are impossible to compute, parents use a proxy. The first month's salary. The assumption is that if the first month salary is high, it would be a strong indicator of higher lifelong earning. That is a huge leap of faith, since as we just said we don't even know what kind of jobs will be there after 10 years.

Let me give you my example. When I was in my final year, and was applying for higher education, the hottest areas were theoretical computer science and Artificial Intelligence (which at that time was really about search and expert systems). I had thoroughly enjoyed the course on Networking and wanted to pursue that. Each of my well wisher advised me that I should write TCS/AI in my statement of purpose, but I was adamant. It had to be Networking. I was lucky to get admission in a good school (UMCP). And I did my PhD in Networking. By the time I finished, all the smart folks were competing for a diminishing number of jobs in TCS/AI and there were extremely few networking PhDs. I got a job in IIT Kanpur, which was considered the best CS department in India at that time, where around the same time, we rejected the applications of PhDs from top departments of the world in TCS/AI, since there were just so many of them. If you were in networking in 90s, the industry lab to work in was Bell Labs, and I could get a visiting position there for a semester. Not having to compete with an army of smart people has helped me a lot in my career. And those who only looked at what is the current favorite actually were so disappointed with the job market, many of them had to change their careers right away. And, of course, today, the networking is no longer hot. One should have morphed into a security expert, or a cloud expert or an IoT expert, or something else.

So, if we don't know what jobs we will be doing 10 years from now, we can not take it for granted that high first month salary will necessarily mean high income over 50 years

But, the first month's salary is important to parents. The next issue is that even if you know exactly what salaries have been offered to everyone in the graduating batch, how do you know what will your ward be offered 4 years from now. Let us consider two programs, both having 10 graduates. In one program, each of those 10 graduates has a job with a salary of Rs. 10 lakhs per annum. In the other program, there is one graduate with a salary of Rs. 1 crore, another one with a salary of Rs. 10 lakhs, and the remaining 8 with salaries of Rs. 2.5 lakhs each. So the average of the first program is Rs. 10 lakhs, and the average of the second program is Rs. 13 lakhs. On the other hand, median of the first program is Rs. 10 lakhs, while that of the second program is Rs. 2.5 lakhs. I can bet that most people will select the second program. My son is the best in the world, and will certainly grab that Rs. 1 crore job. Never mind that since most parents think like that, the competition would be much tougher in that program. So to guess their first month salary, people often look at the highest salary, and if they are a bit more grounded in reality, then average. Hardly anyone ever asks median and hardly any college will give out median.

In summary, the way things get decided are as follows:

1. The optimization function is maximum earning over the lifetime.
2. Since that is not easy to compute, assume that the first month salary would be strongly correlated with the lifetime earnings.
3. Since first month salary is also difficult to guess, assume that the highest salary offered last year would be offered to your ward (suitably enhanced, of course) 4 years hence.
4. And hence the program which had the highest salary package offered last year is the one we want to join.

If the algorithm is so simple, why are parents confused. Well, there are multiple reasons:
1. Do we really know the placement data. (Usually, No.)
2. What happens if the data for the last two years is contradictory (which is often the case).
3. Continuing with 2, will the relative ordering of programs change over the next four years. (That is, if Program 'A' had one student who was offered 100L, and program 'B' had one student who was offered 99L, is it possible that 4 years from now, there would be one program 'B' student who would have a 100L offer, while the highest offer in Program 'A' would be 99L.) Of course, it will happen.
4. The ordering based on highest salary is different from the ordering based on averages, which is different from the ordering based on median. Which one to adopt, particularly when most of the data in public domain is false anyway.
5. Other unknowns.

There is a simple solution that will take care of all your stress. Read the second paragraph again, and convince yourself that beyond a reasonable salary, you wouldn't worry about placement. Stop being a rat. Become a human. And you would be astonished as to how you will actually be able to think of your interests. You will actually be able to think of what you want out of college. And then choosing a college will become that much easier.

I was talking to a philosophy professor a few days ago and discussing this issue of stress during admission season. He told me that the problem of decision making is that a lot of people want to solve an unsolvable problem, and since the problem is unsolvable, they are stressed because they are investing time and effort without any result. If people start focusing on what is possible they will be able to take better and quicker decisions.

Also, as this excellent article by Hunter Rawlings in Washington Post points out, "The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum." Hard work is a more important key than the college itself. So if you are confused, just toss a coin.


Vikrant Prasad said...

Sir I want to join chemE at IIT G this year,but many people are not encouraging me, they are saying to take option like meta dept at IIT M/kgp or K, they say that at these IITs branch really doesn't matter as one gets a non core job only ,but I personally don't want to study meta (I don't think Depc is reliable). And I find IIT G to be a safer option because even if I miss a branch change to ece or cs I will still be happy with chemE. Sir my expectations are to graduate with a avg package of 12-13 lpa. Sir are the placements at IIT G hugely affected due it's remote location ? Are they even poor than other non cs branches at other (newer well connected IITs) or they are just similar to other older IITs. Why is IIT G so underestimated and overlooked ?than IIT BHU also which has a very old infra while IIT G has latest equipments and 20yr old IIT tag ? Doesn't IIT G command the same kind of respect as top 5 IITs?

Prashant said...

Thinking and then taking a logical decision that makes you stand out from the crowd requires capacity for hard work and a lot of courage. Most people don't have both.
Over the past several years, I have discussed a lot of points such as those that you've mentioned with parents and students. Eventually, they will just look at the last year opening and closing ranks, the incomplete data on placements and decide exclusively based on these two criteria. A few of them will take geographical constraints into account (mostly for female students) and that's it.

Abhi said...

That sums it all. :)

Abhi said...

Respected Sir

I'm Abhishek Burnwal

I'm an iit jee aspirant and a completely confused one!

I'm writing this comment to ask for your help.

Sir, what is the fundamental difference between different branches? I tried reading their curriculums but they were quite complex to understand.

So my request to you is to write another post on how to differentiate between branches.


Prashant Thakore said...

Respected sir, my son wants to join bs chemistry from IIT Bombay as he is very much interested in chemistry. Will this choice be good for hime. What are career options in Bs chemistry other than higher studies?

Renu Bala Jena said...

Thank you sir for your valuable guidance to students and parents on your blog. Sir, My daughter had no specific interest in any discipline. She has cleared for IIIT Hyderabad CLD course(Dual degree B tech in CS and MS in computational Linguistics). She also had chances to get BITS Hyderabad CS and IIIT Delhi CS/CSD and B tech Electrical/metallurgy/Civil/Mechanical in IITs. She is interested in CLD course at IIIT Hyderabad but we are confused as this is B Tech CS not CSE so sir please suggest us:
How does it matter to have B Tech CS than B Tech CSE?
Is it wise to leave B Tech CS(4 Years) in IIIT D/BITS and join CLD at IIIT H? How do you find CLD course?

Sir, We are really very confused. Please help.