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Sunday, July 5, 2015

College Admission or Lottery?

We love lottery. Lottery is the easiest way to get big bucks, never mind the probability. And hence a large number of people buy lottery tickets. But are we choosing the colleges and universities to study in based on principles of lottery?

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog about how people choose an engineering college. I mentioned in that blog that some students from some engineering colleges in Delhi are writing on quora that their faculty is poor, their infrastructure is poor, their curriculum is outdated (all in comparison with IIIT Delhi) and yet they are recommending that students join them and not IIIT Delhi because placements are better (which is questionable claim, but I will let it go, since I am not very fond of placement as a way to decide admissions).

As the time to decide the options come close (the options can be filled in till 12th July), the number of answers on quora on the above lines have multiplied. A finer argument is as below:

Because the academic quality is so poor, we can pass all our courses with good marks with very little effort. This means that our transcripts look good (good marks). This also means that we have all the time in the world to do what will get us the jobs, viz., extra-curricular activities which develop our personality and soft skills which companies consider more important than academics (and see our placement record, which is so good), or study for CAT and other management admission tests (and see how many of us get into IIMs and other top management institutes). They will argue that the only purpose of an academic institute is to give them space for self growth, and line up a large bunch of companies at the end, and we know what those companies are going to ask us. We will prepare well for those interviews, and we will get those jobs.

When I wrote my earlier blog, I was dismayed by this line of argument and said so, but in the heart of my heart, I hoped that may be just a few people have this line of thinking. But in the last few days, the number of answers on quora on this line have increased, and it is clear that a lot of students in those institutes believe in this answer. I was still thinking that no prospective student or parent will fall for this argument. I was thinking that anyone reading this would immediately say that if there is no academics, I don't want to send my ward there. After all, one of the primary aims of going to an academic institute is to study. Placement may be important but can not be more important than the quality of education itself. The education is what will serve you for the next 50 years.

But then it happened yesterday. We had an Open House in IIIT Delhi where we invited potential students and their parents to come and see the campus, listen to the Director, ask any questions from students and faculty, etc. And at least parents of two potential students asked me why they should be concerned about quality of education. Why shouldn't they send their wards to a college where they will have all the time in the world to prepare for those campus interviews, and get a 50+ lakh job.

Here is the answer.

If a college 'A' had 0.5 percent graduates getting 50+ lakh package and a college 'B' had 0.7 percent graduates getting 50+ lakh package, and to conclude from this that college 'B' is better than college 'A' is flawed for many reasons. You have not tried to find out what are the skills and competencies those particular students had which your ward may or may not have. Even with those skills and competencies, there will be an element of huge luck since there would be many graduates who have similar skills and competencies. It is not obvious that the same skills would be in demand in 2019. It is not obvious that those companies would even be hiring from this college as the placement is a dynamic game. And these are huge factors.

So, by considering only this factor, you are essentially playing lottery with your ward's career. There is no other word to describe it.

But isn't the highest salary an indicator of overall placement. Hardly. Overall placement would be good if a higher percentage of students have got a job, and most of the students have got a good job (which is best indicated by the median package). And you can look around. Most colleges which have a graduate getting a 1 crore offer would not tell you the median salary of their graduates. They will talk about average, since this one student would have increased the average significantly. That is, if they give out authentic data at all. (By the way, I believe that even if you get authentic detailed data from two colleges, it is still risky to compare them based on placement data as primary inputs. I would not do it. But the point I am making here is that at least don't use such limited data which often give a completely wrong picture of the college.)

Another question about the highest salary is. Isn't there a correlation between better placement today and career earnings over the next 50 years. Again, hardly. The current placement depends on past record. Particularly, when we look at these 50+ lakh packages. Companies want to recruit very small number at these packages every year. So they go to a small number of campuses, which were selected at some point in time because at that time, these campuses were somehow known to produce better graduates. But once people start working, companies have a mechanism to evaluate performance, and give you pay hikes based on that performance. And while the number of 50+ lakh offers would be minuscule on the campuses, this number would soon become very large based on performance. (At least 100 times as many graduates will get this package in less than 10 years' time.) And performance in the company would not just depend on your ability to do well in an interview, or have soft skills or people skills (though all that is important), but your basic competence, and your ability to continuously learn. And there you would find that graduates of colleges with good quality of education do exceedingly well.

(I recall meeting an LNMIIT graduate in 2009, who told me that on-campus placement in his batch in 2007 was ZERO. He managed a job with some help, and he was given the lowest level salary amongst all recruits that year in that company. And yet at the time of his meeting me, he was earning more than anyone else hired in 2007, including graduates from top places, and this was purely because of the fact that we had a fantastic faculty quality in LNMIIT at that time - almost all of them were retired faculty from various IITs.)

So if you want to make money, you have two options. One, choose a college treating the process as a lottery and have a chance of one in 100 to make it big. Two, join a good academic place. Work hard. Build your competencies, and wait for a couple of years, and then the world is yours, almost guaranteed.


siddharth jain said...

Very well said points sir. But the problem is that majority of engineering graduates are working in jobs which actually don't need 1% of the academic knowledge they gained during engineering and people in general rate those jobs as better than the conventional engineering jobs. This is the reason I feel such answers find takers. I remember that during my internship after 3rd year in 2007 I was staying in IIT Bombay campus and at that time people who were coming for counselling process and asking advice of IIT B students, many of the students did complete mind washing saying that join any course @IIT B but don't opt for other IIT's as they have the maximum number of exclusive consultancy firms coming for hiring and you cant get such jobs elsewhere.Just think of a common parent who didn't had much idea of all such things being (mis)guided in this style.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Siddharth, I would tend to disagree. Yes, there are jobs in finance, consultancy, and other such fields where you don't need much of your technical background. But today, the largest number of 50+ lakh jobs are in technical fields (and remember I am only talking in the context of IT graduates). So google, facebook, microsoft recruiting for their US office, for example. Also, even the non-technical jobs require skills such as analysis, and problem solving, which you hone by sitting through those courses (but only if the instructor was not just giving you a series of information, and ask you to recall that information in the test). So, even non-technical jobs will be done better by people who have done good academics in whatever discipline. Indeed, if you look at who gets these jobs, one finds that usually low CPI graduates don't get these jobs.

I understand that students of any college would like brainwash potential students about joining them. If they think that their college is great, then of course, they will do it with pride, they would want as many people to apply to their college so that only the best (like them) join the college. And if students are unhappy with the college, they would not still tell others not to join, because that would be admitting their own mistake of joining a bad college. But I would have hoped that since parents are involved in a big way in decision making in India, and they are more experienced, they perhaps would not fall for such brainwashing. But I find that even highly educated parents are falling for this line.

Also, there is an extreme view here compared to IITB. At least in IITB, they are saying that academics is great in all disciplines, and then saying that you will do a job outside the discipline, and hence discipline does not matter. Here they are saying that academics is very poor in my college and poor academics is being sold as a virtue. I could not imagine before yesterday that someone will actually buy poor academics as a virtue.

prabha said...

"And there you would find that graduates of colleges with good quality of education do exceedingly well." yes this are the quality colleges what you call as colleges of lottery.
Another thing IIIT Delhi only can not be taken as bench mark for quality of education.
It is the parents students will decide which is quality college and the way they decide might be a better method. This way things were going on like comparing the placement of colleges, student chooses them. You need a opening to enter some where. Every one of LMNIT may not get a chance of what you referred as LMNIT man. You can surely take for this one LMNIT man there are 100 from lottery colleges in the company earning more than him.(ie at the time of joining). Which is a better probability for job students are choosing them. Ascertaining quality of college is very difficult. After 4 years where this quality colleges, lottery colleges will stand no body knows.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

Dear Prabha, I would fully agree with you that there can be multiple definitions of quality. But the issue that I am referring to, there is unanimity on both sides which is better quality education, and the argument is only whether quality of education should be a parameter at all in deciding the college, and whether the quality of education at all has any impact on future career. And I can only express my surprise and dismay when one says "I agree that college A has better quality of education, but that has no impact on careers." I think when one says that, one is playing lottery. But then lottery has been a legal business for as long as the humankind has existed.

Anonymous said...

Sir, I am in a position where I would not be able to get a seat at iiitd but would get one at dtu (jee main rank is 9k and i am a non delhi student) After reading about this hot topic on quora, I am really scared . I would not like a situation where after doing 4 years of engineering I realize that I do not have the skills required simply because of the quality of the faculty of my college. Most dtu students tell me that you'll learn SELF STUDY in the first semester itself. Doesn't that defeat the purpose of getting a degree if I have to learn all by myself. In such a situation what should I do . What other options do i have given that I am interested in electronics. Also i believe if things go on at this rate even in the placements department iiitd will march ahead of the others in a few years time ( even though this is not a very good criteria to compare colleges)
Sir please help me on this

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Anonymous, please contact me on my email with your options, in particular which is your home state and you may be able to get decent options in your home state NIT, and we can discuss your options offline. My email is sanghi [AT]
(replace [AT] by '@')
At 9K rank, there must be options available.

Prashant said...

My first job was as an Analytics developer at a (then) well-known (day zero, if that really matters) financial services firm + investment bank. Many of the roles in these companies are "fintech" or quant roles involving a fair bit of math, stats, programming and software development. The technical standards expected in these jobs are not very different from what would be required at a tech company such as Amazon, in the first few years of someone's career. Many quant roles in fact, require technical proficiency of a level which are often higher than that of top tech companies. Many managers used to simply ignore the resumes of those who had cited half a dozen worthless extra curriculars as a way to mask a low GPA. I remember some hiring managers being appalled by the inability of some students to answer even basic questions related to programming. Consulting is the only high paying sector which doesn't really care much about your tech skills, but there's not much of a chance that they'll be amused with a low GPA.

prabha said...

Dear Prabha, I would fully agree with you that there can be multiple definitions of quality. But the issue that I am referring to, there is unanimity on both sides which is better quality education, and the argument is only whether quality of education should be a parameter at all in deciding the college, and whether the quality of education at all has any impact on future career. And I can only express my surprise and dismay when one says "I agree that college A has better quality of education, but that has no impact on careers." I think when one says that, one is playing lottery. But then lottery has been a legal business for as long as the humankind has existed.
"Agreed with what your said here" prabha

Vinayak Naik said...

Indian parents and students don't look at quality of faculty as a metric to decide which institute to select. Rather, they use placement records of the institutes. I believe that over the years, as the quality of faculty degraded uniformly across all the institutes, that metric lost its relevance. Hence, it got substituted for a proxy metric of placement records as no direct metric, such as "rank of career progressed over the years" is available.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

Dr. Vinayak, I understand that the rank of career progressed over the years is not available. But my point is that information on immediate placement is also not available. What is available are some tid bits of information shared by some students and some perceptions, which could be seriously wrong (and in a few cases where I have seen authentic data from even reputed colleges, the perception data on social media is very different). Second, while real data for how alumni are performing 5 years, 10 years, 20 years after graduation is not available, if you talk to successful folks (and we invite many of them on various occasions to address our students), they will tell you that overall quality of education (not always technical content) has helped them tremendously. I mean, I really want to understand how does one come to the conclusion that quality of education has no impact on careers. Because if that was the case, it should be possible for someone to build a nice place where good students can just do anything under the sun, whether cultural stuff or sports, or study for CAT, and there be no teaching/learning (so save the cost of recruiting expensive faculty), and that is it. But we don't have such examples of great universities without faculty anywhere in the world.

Vikram said...

I am sure that the IITs can survey their alumni and release average incomes of alumni from various branches. I think the students will be able to make better choices if this information was available.