Weigh Your Options

From career prospects to exposure, affordability to peer groups, there are a range of factors to consider before you make a choice about which course to go for or what college to study in

Published: 25th August 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd September 2014 06:21 PM   |  A+A-

An eternal dilemma students’ face is the course versus college debate — whether to enrol for any course in a prestigious institution or choose a course of their choice in any college? Edex digs deep for answers.

Course matters

“When making a choice between a course and a college, the course should be given precedence because, in the long run, what you like to do the most and what you are really good at are the biggest factors that will drive you to succeed. However, this decision is a bit of a tight rope walk because the brand of the college also matters. Companies do pay slightly greater attention to colleges with bigger brand names. But unless an applicant is completely worthy of hiring, h/she won’t be picked. A college of renown might get you more job interviews, but only the course you select combined with your knowledge will get you the right job,” says Jaideep Gupta, CEO and Founder, Univariety, a College and Admissions Planning Service based in Hyderabad.

Value of collegiate edu

In this debate on course versus college, all of us view learning only in terms of classroom learning. Students nowadays learn more from their peers than their classes. Concurring, Sijo Kuruvilla George, CEO, Startup Village, Kochi, says, “A good college provides a congenial environment for learning and an ecosystem which supports you in that pursuit. We often tend to ignore or underestimate the amount and quality of peer education that takes place in such an environment. In fact, I would say that the bulk of your learning in a college happens outside of the classroom. It is also important to note that it’s the community of peers which shapes your aspirations.”


The end result of collegiate education seems to be landing a good job and it is essential to debate which element helps achieve this — course or college. Echoing Jaideep’s view that a good college is not THE element helpful in procuring jobs, Sijo as an employer says, “At Startup Village, the college, course or the marks are not the basis of providing an opportunity to a candidate. Those could be good cues but are not excellent predictors of on-the-job performance. Working together with people can probably serve as the only reasonable assessment in my opinion. Given that context, if employment is the objective, there should be a much stronger push towards internship opportunities. This will have the added benefits of picking up skills and forging relationships as well.”

Sijo adds that settling for just any course in a known college is not a good recipe for either employment or learning. “Pick colleges and courses that will give you the opportunity to connect with the best of minds in that industry and thereby, provide you with the environment to maximise your avenues for peer learning.”

It’s industry-specific

With the cost of education shooting upwards day by day, the choice to study at prestigious institutions like IIMs and IITs is made difficult. In those instances, does the brand matter? What about studying abroad which is still a big lure for all of us? Making a quick comparison between National Institute of Design-Ahmedabad, and University of California-Los Angeles, is Sunil Thankamushy, a US-based animator. “Both courses in animation and design offered at these places are good. I almost made it to NID, but chose to study at UCLA instead. If both places are equally or at least nearly equally reputed, there is no real difference in how much better you would learn in one place more than the other. It all depends on the individual’s capacity.  The real difference, however, would be in the leverage each gives you after graduation in terms of two key things — your network of colleagues and professors and access to the job market.”

In Sunil’s case, it made a lot of difference, with the University being close to Hollywood; by the time he graduated, he was rich with contacts. “The other big difference is the level of debt you would rack up by the end of the programme. I could go to UCLA only because I got a full scholarship. Otherwise, it would have been next to impossible. So my advice is to compare the colleges from a standpoint of the costs, reputation as far as job placement is concerned, and its proximity to the industry of your choice,” he says.

Accreditation aspects

Accreditation is not optional, but mandatory, going by the conventional methods in India. But institutes like Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), Chennai, and Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, have proved that they are leaders in their streams despite not being accredited. What works in their favour? “Probably the exposure students get, which might not be available in other colleges to the same extent,” begins Devadas P Rajaram, Professor, ACJ. “Our courses are constantly revamped. We introduced the popup newsroom, common in universities like Missouri, Arizona, California State University and other places in the US. A one-of-its-kind experiment last year, our students partnered with their peers from other leading J-schools in the world and worked on a live mobile journalism project. Such kind of exposure is not part of a classroom in general and I am not sure if so-called accredited schools can give such an experience to students, considering the protocol and logistics involved,” he explains.

Exploring the other road

While it is mostly engineering, BCom and medical courses that are sought-after during admission season, courses on Design, Textiles, Art and the like are considered “soft” options by many students and parents. Is it worthwhile exploring them? Are they lucrative? “Real education should bring in happiness and vision which in turn can enlighten the life of the learner and others, rather than converting a student into a data gathering machine. It should enable one to resolve problems in his/her daily life and social ecosystem. Unfortunately, in India mainstream education is driven by parents rather than the student. Neither the parents nor the students want to walk a path less travelled. The affinity to be in mass inertia has made us remain in mediocrity while selecting career options. We fail to look beyond the five chosen paths like Medicine, Engineering, CA, MBA and IT, even if the remuneration and growth aspect remains higher in an alternative career,” says Kaustav Sengupta, Associate Professor, National Institute of Fashion Technology, Chennai.

Continuing, he says that the factor of a ‘stable job’ is no more valued and that ‘change’ is the new mantra. As an example, he refers to the state of a number of Engineering graduates across the country who are now shifting from their core areas and compromising their professional careers and agreeing to lower remuneration. With the need for creative professionals growing every day, he says that graphic designers, fashion designers, product designers, usability designers, movie editors, sound editors, content writers, textile designers, trend analysts, and such are much in demand.

The arts and science scene

It is not just engineers who are bogged down by whether they should opt for Textiles Engineering at IIT-Madras or go for Computer Science at a private/less reputed college. It is a well-known fact that it is easier to secure an engineering seat than get admission for BCom at Delhi University with the cut-offs reaching insane levels. What do representatives from the arts and science fraternity have to say about the issue?

Says Prasanta Chakravarthy, Prof of English, Delhi University, “While it is indeed true that colleges like St Stephen’s, Miranda House and Lady Shri Ram College of Commerce house excellent faculty, the other colleges under DU, which may not be considered among the cream of institutions, are fairly good in their own ways. Even DU has had its own problems in recent times with the four-year undergraduate programme being scrapped. There are several so-called small colleges that have dedicated teachers. Students are even queuing to study at private universities like Ashoka University, paying a little extra, and these aren’t stupid choices. Good students needn’t worry about brand value and will do well for themselves wherever they are.”

But rooting for the college brand is Gladston Xavier, Head of Sociology Department, Loyola College, a reputed name that sees thousands of applications every year for just a few hundred seats. “Brand definitely matters even when it comes to arts and sciences, as colleges like ours comes with rich heritage, facilities and more.”

Emphasising the importance of the brand, he adds, “There could be new engineering colleges teaching innovative courses, but why are aspirants ignoring them and heading to the IITs? Because of the brand value. This is the case with studies abroad too. Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Johns Hopkins might be teaching the same thing as with universities, but again there is a difference. Where you study matters and, of course, to some extent, what you study,” he says.

The lure of management education

Take a typical Indian household and terms like CAT and IIM are as common as coffee/tea or idly/roti. The number of schools offering management education is higher compared to any other stream in India, but the sheen of an IIM degree has remained intact. Should you work to get an IIM degree or how about exploring private colleges that have done well like SP Jain Institute of Management and Research or Great Lakes Institute of Management? We ask the management experts themselves.

Says Prof Debashis Chatterjee, Director, IIM-Kozhikode, “There are primarily two issues concerning management education with regards to this topic — can someone who studied in a modest college gain admission into an IIM? And what are the prospects of an engineer from an IIT or NIT opting to study at a Tier-II college, which is still a good option? It is a myth that only top-class engineering graduates who have studied at premier institutions in the country join IIMs. We have a pool of NIFT graduates, doctors, and others, who have cracked CAT and settled into an IIM. CAT doesn’t take into account where you studied. A computer-based test, it only looks at your ability. What really works in the favour of those who have studied in prestigious colleges is the peer group they have grown up with. With the demand versus supply problem we face, IIMs are not the end of the world and it is perfectly fine to graduate from SP Jain or Narsee Monjee as you could still be on par with IIM graduates.”

Echoing the same thoughts is Prof Bala V Balachandran, Dean, Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai. He was also the founding member of two other prestigious management schools — Management Development Institute, Gurgaon and Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. “Whether it’s an IIM or Great Lakes, what really matters is the quality of faculty. There could be inept teachers just reading from books even in some prestigious institutions, whereas in our college, we have seen the likes of Philip Kotler and Bobby Srinivasan teaching our students. World-renowned professor Aswath Damodaran’s courses are available on any MOOC (online study) platform and students tell me they are much better than when the same subject is taught by professors here. Even without a teacher present, the feedback is that some of the courses on online platforms like Coursera, edX and Udacity are world class. Perhaps, a combination of brand, course and faculty make for effective learning though I don’t advocate that it is the brand alone that matters,” he says.

V for vocational

In this course versus college debate, one mustn’t forget what happens to those who can’t embrace either of the options. Can vocational education lend them a helping hand? Replying in the affirmative is Sachin Adhikari, a transformational trainer at Achievers Zone, Mumbai. “Parents and students in India still cling to the belief that a university education is a sure-fire ticket to a good job, no matter what discipline one studies. This leads to mediocre results and lack of motivation in the future professional roles that the students take up. Students should try and understand where their interests and passions lie while picking their college degree or diplomas,” he says.

He also observes that now the trend around the world is shifting, with increasing emphasis being given to soft skills along with technical skills. He believes that training students in industry-specific skills, for instance, spoken English for the BPO or insurance sector, can help generate employment opportunities. “With India having a huge population in the working-age group, vocational training can do justice to the country’s demographic dividend. It can offer employment in industries like BPOs, insurance, computer technology, printing, agriculture, automobile and in roles like craftsmanship, lab technician, librarian and beauticians/cosmetologists, among others. Usually such courses include typewriting, secretarial practices, desktop publishing, librarian course, mechanics training, electrical technician training, and plumbing to name a few. With the Government’s support, they can find employment in several state and central government organisations, non-profit groups, academic institutions and sometimes even in private companies, as selection to these positions are made on a skill-based test conducted by the employers. Even if we look at students who are pursuing a particular mainstream course, developing vocational skills along with the same can help them stay ahead of their peers and meet the need for trained workers throughout the nation in various industries, thereby reducing unemployment,” he says.

Practical approach

Says Narayanan Palani, “According to the industry standards, I have put myself through only regular (not premier) institutes like New College, Chennai, for BSc and LN Welingkar School of Management, Mumbai for Executive MBA. Because of a combination of reasons such as financial challenges having grown up in a middle class family and not holding a good score at the Higher Secondary level (though a topper in Class X, I failed a subject in Class XII and cleared it in an improvement exam), I settled for next best choices for my graduation and post graduation. But that in no way has hampered my chances of putting my best foot forward — be it in my jobs or entrepreneurial venture. Having been a student myself and having gone through the grind and the disappointment of not having big names on my resume, this is what I have to say — do your best to get into a top college and study a course of your choice. If not, there’s always a way around that.” After his Executive MBA, Narayanan worked for a few years in India and is now employed in Llyods Banking Group, London, without having to spend money on a UK education.  His qualifications have made him an Indian recipient of ‘first’ and one of only 200 annual and globally issued Tier 1 Exceptional Talent work visas for the UK.

Varsha V, who graduated from a premier engineering college in Chennai, which is notorious for pulling up students for communicating with the opposite sex, which is considered wrong. She says, “Going from the liberal atmosphere at school to such a college was tough, but at the end of the day I was able to get a job with a software giant, whereas my friends who had joined the liberal colleges are yet to find placement. Sometimes, we have to compromise if the particular college can guarantee placement.”

Rooting for practical exposure, Srimathi Sridharan, a first-year student at ACJ says, “My course might not be accredited, but is the best in this industry. Nowhere in India are there schools like ACJ that allow to specialise in streams of journalism like broadcast, print and new media. People who have proven their calibre like (The Hindu’s) N Ravi and N Ram deliver key issue lectures on politics, terrorism, gender and women-related issues, which is a major draw. A rigorous 10-month course, it is like a roller coaster ride. Importantly, we are treated as journalists and not as students. Here, nobody teaches you the theory of journalism but they are more concerned about the practical applications.”


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