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India cram schools offer a chance at upward mobility

In Kota, students cram for the grueling engineering entrance exam that could earn them a spot in one of 15 elite Indian Institutes of Technology, or IITs.

September 10, 2012|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Students pack a classroom in Kota, India's cram school capital. Spots at top cram schools are so coveted that entrants take tests to join.
Students pack a classroom in Kota, India's cram school capital. Spots… (Saurabh Das, Associated…)

KOTA, India — The fourth of seven children of illiterate parents, Mohammad Ahmad grew up on his family's two-acre farm with barely enough to eat. Now that farm, which supports two dozen people in his extended family, is being used as collateral for a chance to score big here in India's cram school capital.

For up to 19 hours a day, seven days a week, the 17-year-old studies, attends classes and takes mock tests, preparing for India's ultra-competitive engineering entrance exam.

In this second-tier city of dusty storefronts and belching rickshaws, Ahmad and the tens of thousands of other students embody a nation's hunger for upward mobility, social respect and a role in the new India. One can almost hear the angst in the creak of cheap student bicycles and the mantra of parents: Forget exercise, dating, video games. How will you ever get into engineering school if you don't study more?

The Holy Grail is a spot at one of 15 Indian Institutes of Technology, or IITs. Admission is blisteringly difficult — think Harvard, Princeton and MIT combined. This year, half a million test takers nationwide elbowed for 9,647 spots. As CBS' "60 Minutes" said, the IITs are "the most important university you've never heard of."

Driving India's love affair with the schools is the promise of higher income, social status, even marriage prospects. Graduates command high salaries, better dowry terms and promising job offers with top Indian and multinational companies. Although many don't ultimately go into engineering, an IIT degree can open doors.

But the entrance exam's 98% failure rate can destroy the dreams of families such as Ahmad's that can ill afford the fees, which approach $1,400 annually.

"This isn't competition, it's gambling," said Abdul Mabood, director of the national help line Snehi, which counsels stressed students, including the legions who travel to this northern city where billboards aplenty promise success: "Unbeatable Performance!" says one. "Bull's Eye Classes," reads another.

Kota's emergence as cram capital for the 4 1/2-hour annual IIT entrance exam owes much to serendipity.

In the mid-1980s, mechanical engineer V.K. Bansal received a diagnosis of muscular dystrophy, quit his job and started coaching IIT aspirants in his kitchen. A few years later, fellow IIT graduate Pramod Maheshwari abandoned dreams of living in the U.S. after protests from his mother and started coaching from his garage.

Both saw their students do well — IIT admissions are so celebrated that top entrants are front-page news — and word spread. In 2000, a Bansal student garnered the highest score in India. "It was a gold medal for us," said A.K. Tiwari, Bansal's chief technology officer in a company that now has 17,000 students and dozens of teachers and administrators.

Both Bansal and Maheshwari are now multimillionaires running massive competing schools. In fact, once-industrial Kota boasts 129 "coaching institutes," from holes in the wall to marble-gilded learning factories.

"I haven't seen a single parent say they don't have the money — they'll sell land, borrow, anything," said Prakash Joy, president of Ables Educations, another Kota cram school.

Spots at the top cram schools are so coveted that entrants take tests to join, even as schools compete to retain top instructors for programs ranging from four months to two years. "Poaching comes with coaching," said Maheshwari, whose Career Point institute boasts 20,000 of Kota's estimated 100,000 students.

For anxious parents, a key attraction to Kota is its near-complete lack of multiplex theaters or pubs. "I have no friends here," said Surabhi Kumari, 17, at Career Point. "My father doesn't want me using my phone. I'm here to study."

Local families in conservative Kota, traditionally known for its woven saris and Mughal military legacy, also play their part. While renting out rooms to students, many serve as surrogate parents, keeping careful watch over their young tenants, tracking their whereabouts and discouraging horseplay.

Four years ago, the city opened its first mall, but most students are so focused they don't know where it is, said Sumit Chaturvedi, 32, who runs hostels for boys and girls. (Separate, of course.) Recently, Chaturvedi evicted a boy for smoking so he wouldn't influence others.

"We keep these things in mind," he said. "Kota is much better for studying. Most big cities have lots of entertainment and distractions."

The IITs are the pride of India, largely free of politics or corruption, earning kudos in 2003 from Microsoft's Bill Gates for helping build Silicon Valley. Indeed, the cram schools and IITs have been criticized for subsidizing brain drain. An old joke holds that IIT graduates have one foot in India, the other aboard Air India.

Others question whether success comes at the cost of creative thinking.

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