Thursday, May 18, 2006

A thought experiment

Okay, let's try a thought experiment. Assume that you are just finishing high school in a medium-sized town, and you have a pretty good academic record: first rank in school, and top one percent in your school board. Your family runs on a modest income, but it places a great deal of value on education. Your hard-working parents look forward to the good times that will surely roll in when you start your career after college.

Assume now that you have been admitted to one of the IITs (yes, you went through a moderately expensive coaching program by mail). While you have done quite well in academics so far, you are also aware that you will be studying with a bunch of other bright students. Thus, you are apprehensive about your ability to do well in your courses in IIT. In the meantime, you also have an admission offer from a second tier college.

Assume now that you somehow 'know' (say, God told you in your dream!), a priori, that you are not going to do well in IIT; you will pass, but not with flying colours; let's say you will be a 'six-point-someone'. You also 'know' that if you choose to go to the other college, you will do very well (above average marks, first class, etc).

Given this choice between doing well in another college, and being an also ran in an IIT, which one would you choose? Why?

* * *

'IIT' here is being used as a proxy for any top tier institution in any professional field: AIIMS in medicine, NLSUI in law, etc. Clearly, we are talking about institutions in India, where there is a significant (perceived) difference between tier I and tier II institutions.

And, yes, there is a point behind this exercise. I will post my own choice at the end of the experiment, whose 'success' depends on your honest inputs. I thank you in advance for taking the time to comment.


  1. Anonymous said...

    IIT, for, there is so much of difference in being an also-ran at IIT as compared to being a top-ranker in an not so well known place. I guess most of the difference is in terms of the exposure that IITs offer and the confidence that the students gain!

  2. Anonymous said...

    IIT. If I am that student you described, I would not really see tier 2 college as a choice. Besides, at that age I would not have the maturity to seriously consider passing over IIT for another college. The considerable investment of effort and money into IIT preparation speaks a lot about the choices I would make.

  3. Anonymous said...

    IIT. Given that grades are irrelevant anyway, and that most students need to do a masters these days, the brand of your under-grad (or even postgrad) education makes a considerable difference. Also, IIT has excellent infrastructure that most second tier colleges cannot provide. Exposure I think is quite a variable thing. Some people argue that IITs can be quite insular.

  4. Anonymous said...

    While problem has been clearly stated, the nature of it is such that it can never really be comprehensively stated.

    Let's take IIT-M vs say Annai Marimuthu Mary Matha College of Engineering(I hope there ain't one in reality). I may choose Annai Marimuthu because I like the view of the ocean from the classroom and I only depend on college to get me a degree which would get me a bride. I may choose Annai Marimuthu because feeling good about myself is more important to me than absolute scales. I may choose Annai Marimuthu because I do not agree with the idea of the absolute - a kinda protest.

    It completely depends on the individual's preferences. To compare the two on absolute terms is an insult to the individual.

  5. Anonymous said...

    I am making a guess that you are talking about the choice that you might have made in your own life. You went to CMU for graduate school , after graduating from IT-BHU which is perceived as not being in the same class as IIT. And now you are holding a faculty position at IIsc.

    You also linked to a story of of the topper from your batch who is now faculty at Renessaler, thus obviously having done well for himself. Of course , all this only a calculated guess.

  6. Anonymous said...

    Six years ago I would have said IIT, but I now think it makes more business sense to choose the II tier school and succeed there.

    Case in point : IIM-A students who were in the Top 50 in CAT, but in the 2nd half of their class after 2 years in the program get "low end" jobs while those who could not make it to IIM-A (outside the top 200), but went to say IIM-C and topped there to get the same jobs (McKinsey et al) as many toppers in IIM-A. So, was the IIM-A stamp worth it, when all you were looking for was a lucrative job or at least the opportunity to get your foot into the corporate management door ?

    I think the same applies to any other form of remunition from education like, say apping success. If you are outside the top 10 in an IIT you wont get the same univs as a topper from other good insti's (BITS/IT-BHU etc).

  7. Anonymous said...

    IIT, of course. Specially at that age. :)

  8. Anonymous said...

    IIT. As Neha says, brand-name matters whether it is for job-hunting or networking with alumni.

  9. Anonymous said...

    One gets through to a tier I institute only by believing in oneself. So just after learnign that I got through the 'toughest' competition, I would not give up my chance of being part of an elite institute, on the hunch that the competition there would be too much for me.

    But I agree its difficult to live as a six point someone when one has been the 'best' all through the school time. Probably that's why we hear of so many suicides at these premier institutes.

  10. Anonymous said...

    IIT (I chose Naval Arch. at IITM rather than Mech or Elec. at IT-BHU, because I wanted to stay in my home town and because no one else I knew was going to IT-BHU and about 10 others from my schools were going to IITM), because of the reasons Rajeev (not wanting to give up the fruits of the hard work) and Neha (brand value) mentioned above. Also, I didn't have much of a choice. I barely got into the free seat cutoff in TN and did not write any other entrance exam like Roorkee. I was all set to join Vivekananda college in BSC Chem or something if I didn't get through. I don't regret it, though things haven't exactly been peachy since ( I did escape without any long term scars from competing with the studs all around).

  11. Anonymous said...

    IIT. But you already knew that ;)

    Also, it depends on what you're classifying as a "tier 2" institution. (e.g, I wouldn't say IT-BHU is tier 2, but you might, for purposes of this experiment)

    A lot of people who've gotten XLRI and IIM-K/IIM-I are leaving XLRI, an established insti with proven records of excellence even in the non-HR stream, for the latter instis.

    The primary reason given was brand recognition.


    You're mistaken about only the top 10 students in IIT getting decent univs while apping..

    Not everyone who gets multiple final calls takes IIM-A, agreed, but the question here is not a choice between A and C, it's more like between IIM-A, and say, SP Jain.

  12. Anonymous said...

    I have actually had this decision to make at the end of my 12th std.. I had got a 2256 rank or somthing at JEE and was sure of not getting anything except Civil and what are generally termed "lower" branches. Infact I didn't even attend the counselling for IIT. I had got B.E Mech in Anna Univ.. I tried again the next year and got only a small improvement (1526 or something) and got into B.Tech Aerospace at IITM..

    So my deal is .. now that I know the facilities and resources that IITs have to offer.. I would choose IIT hands down..

    But at that point I had made the other decision.. and still think so unless somebody had really told me about the facilities, resources and the environment that IITs have to offer (like a great Library, brilliant Profs, excellent academic environment..not the mug and write type !! (except for a few courses which are bound to be there !!), and people don't judge you only on the basis of your grades..!!! etc. etc.. )

    Also ...I would have chosen IIT if hadn't got Anna Univ or something like that.. I would have preferred doing anything here compared to the most wanted course (which is ECE in TN I guess at the present)at some college which I have not heard about.. As shrik said.. it depends on what you classify as tier II institutions

  13. Anonymous said...

    @ shrik :

    I think in the experiment the chooser has to be offered a similar maximum return yet a lower expected payoff in one case as opposed to the other.

    I mean, IIM-A as well as SP-Jain can get you into a McKinsey, so that is a fair comparison. But, its more likely to get into McK from IIM-A than from SPJ.

    Also I meant the topper from say IT-BHU would beat an IIT Rank 10 (a normalized one, not a special case) in getting into a grad school because univs DO place a lot of importance on being in the top 5% of your graduating class, no matter which univ the students come from.

    So, would you choose to go to an IIT and be say rank 10 or would you choose to go to IT-BHU and be rank 1 is the question and the answer I think is obviously the latter.

    There is an implicit assuption that this person is good enough to maximize his return.

  14. Anonymous said...

    For whatever it's worth, let's say we vote for IIT.

    Will you please hurry up with your thought experiment? Our readers are getting impatient, they want more analysis of your posts.

    We kind of know where you are going with this.

  15. Anonymous said...

    Don't all of you see what he wants to derive upon!!Why are you participating in this kind of an experiment at all. He wants to conclude that everyone would want an IIT which implies that IITs manage to enhance the social standing of the students who enter. In other words a guy who fails at IIT is much better off than one who tops a local engineering college.
    However there are fundamental flaws on how the question has been projected.
    (A) A confident general category chap who clears JEE won't ever think that he will fare badly at IITs. So there is no god sent way in which he can be assumed to know about it beforehand.
    (B) On the other hand a quota student will always be apprehensive while joining any college on whether or not he would be able to perform.
    Thus the assertion that he would be able to do well in some other college is not true. He would be beaten by some general category student, but he will have better chances of completing the course within 4 years or so.
    (C) The chances of a general category failure student getting a job would be much higher than a quota student. Companies take interviews and tests and can hence select the meritorious who didnt work from the ones who werent fit to work.
    So I would frame the question like this:
    You are a SC/ST student. You know that you can't compete with the general category students and would probably take more years than 4 to get a degree. You also know that you might not do very well in a private college but you will at least pass in 4 years. What would you choose?
    And my answer to my question would be: I don't care, I will choose anything. In the end I have to go for a govt. job with reservation anyway.

  16. Anonymous said...

    I dont know how many students can have the benefit of knowing(correctly ie), a priori, that they are going to fare badly.The system, on its won, should be selecting the good ones.

    Anyway, my personal choice would have been IIT. But, i guess attitudes differ hugely. I was talking to a friend of mine who had come in thro reservation and was asking him about the % applicants,for jee, who r SC/ST( I guess that number is somewhere around 16% ,I could be wrong) . He told me that one reason for this number not being very high is that quite a few sc/st students opt out of the jee route as they thought that a good performance@second tier institutes would be better for them. But again, i dont think it is wise for students(unless extremely well informed..and this is rarely the case in our society) to take such decisions('not able to cope') @undergrad level. If someone has an elec admit @iit and and elec admit@ II tier..there is aboslutely no reason form her/him to chuck the iit opportunity. The gulf between I tier and II tier in India is huge.

  17. Anonymous said...

    IIT certainly. It is the brand value and alumni connections. If the next step is a university abroad the IIT connection is valuable. While within India performance in future entrance tests is not correlated with undergrad institution; job opportunities are. And then at the B-schools it helps to be at the right level in the pecking order especially at IIM-A. The IITians and Stephenians (with or w/o Doon School) are at the top. The 2nd rung consists of SRCC/LSR Delhi, Stella/Loyola, Madras, Xaviers Bombay/Calcutta and other such institutions. The REC/IT-BHU grads bring up the third level. IIMC is supposedly less stuck up. IIMB/L are somewhere inbetween. I have interviewed candidates at all these schools and have heard students furiously deny any such thing. I take that with a generous pinch or two. Because here in the US that is how some elite school grads talk - as if it means nothing; but you know...

    I am from one of the earliest batches at a B-School that is now considered a 'premier' institution. When I was looking for a job those days it was hard to sell myself. Years later as a recruiter when I visited IIM-X and was talking the placement director I was pleasantly surprised to have him respond, "Oh you went to XYZ? That's a premier school." Did he really mean it?

    Does this all matter? Certainly not. But try convincing an employer. I would think that as a real university BHU is the best we have in India. There is definitely no other in India that has such a breadth of disciplines and tradition of scholarship in every one of them. Another 'famous' university doesn't come close filled as it is with left loons and red rascals, apart from being limited to some humanities and the sciences. Jadhavpur University is another candidate but does not have medicine, dentistry and law but should the WB government choose to offer them they would do a very good job of it (by partnering with say IISWBM, SSKM, Cal Medical, and Cal Law). Compared to these the IITs and IIMs are mere finishing schools. IISc, Tifr, and other specialised institutes are more like research institutes than universities. IIT-KG is doing a good thing by diversifying into law, management, economics etc.

  18. Anonymous said...

    I'm going to be contrary here and say that I would at least seriously consider the "second-tier" univ, and probably take it. For this reason: I think 5 years after you graduate, perhaps a little more at best, it ceases to matter where you're from. You prove your worth in your profession and that's all that counts.

    Of course, it's easy to say this from the other side of that decision. But if at 17 or so, a student is level-headed enough to understand this much, then I think he might do well to go to the second-tier place and soak up as much as he can.

  19. Anonymous said...

    If you are good enough to get in to an IIT (on merit), there is no reason why you can't do well exept if you no longer want to work hard. So you should go to IIT - it will be a lot tougher, but that's part of life.

    Unfortunately, some people think that getting into a top ranked insti is an end in itself - sorry but at every stage in life, getting through one hurdle only gives you the right to play the next round. eg. get into IIT - do well, and you can make it to a top grad school. Get into an IIM - do well and get into McKinsey or a top I-Bank. Get into McKinsey - do well and make Partner. Become a McKinsey Partner - do well, and become a Fortune 500 CEO. Become a CEO - do well and you become Jack Welch.

    So take up the toughest challenge you get a chance to - that's what gives you the right to play

  20. Abi said...

    Thank you all for your response. The verdict seems clear: one should choose IITs. My choice too would be the same.

    More here.