Finding a ‘good’ engineering college in India outside JEE

Long post & not on design!! Wrote this to help countless aspirants and their parents in India wade through this tormenting maze!

The Background

We are talking of a country where nearly three million students graduate as engineers every year. And studies tell us that not even 20% of them are really “employable” for various reasons specific to the whole education system in India. There are some 36000 engineering colleges in India but some 23 IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) stand out. Because every year nearly 2 million go through one of the toughest exams ‘on the Earth’- JEE to compete for some 18000 seats. Kids AND parents start preparing early — from 8th or 9th standard for the exam that would happen 3–4 years later. This is, despite the fact that there is an abominable rate of depression and suicides around this whole preparation and exam. Why do people go through this? That is because every years newspapers flash the news of skyrocketing salaries offered to ‘handful’ of IITians (that even CEOs of the company don’t get on an average).

The Outcome

Our son joined Bennett University last year (2018) and currently pursuing Electronic Engineering there. We went through a tormenting grind of searching for the right career line and then good college for him in India and abroad. Here is a short note on the journey we undertook. It must be noted that these observations are highly contextual to the background that we as a parent have, the temperament and aptitude that our son has and the options that we encountered. So, certain bias is natural beyond the limitations of the space and the language itself.

The Journey

Our journey of deciding the career line for our son started when he was in 11th standard. He had a scientific and rational bent of mind. He got introduced to Arduino kit (for DIY electronics) and he loved playing with that and he made several videos for his projects that he maintained on a YouTube channel. He was equally passionate about his guitar and music. But playing with electronics as a hobby is one thing and taking it up as a career is another. We were unsure if he would carry this passion through the four years of rigour in the formal education.

One of the things we tried to do was to expose him to people from different trades. In one of the meetings with an erstwhile photographer (in NY) turned successful startup entrepreneur in India, he realized that hobby and career are two different things. He dropped the idea of pursuing music as a full-time career when he heard the stories of struggle as a photographer, from this gentleman.

It is also important to note that he was aware of the possibilities after two career lines i.e. engineering and design. That is because he was meeting and absorbing conversations between me and my friends. Incidentally, I graduated from one of the IITs back then. I also have a post graduate degree from NID. Both these are top aspirational institutions in India. So, my son was aware of some of the career nuances being part of conversations at home. But as a modern parents my wife and I wanted him to have a broader palette of choice of career than what we had for ourselves. So, I took him to show around Flame — the liberal arts college in Pune, quite a good one, but he was not moved. We also discussed Ashoka University as one of the options and he did eventually apply for it, got selected for it but did not join ultimately.

Peer Pressure and Failed School System

When he entered class 11th, the peer pressure got onto him and he signed up for a coaching class. 95% kids in his class of 50 or so, had signed up for a coaching class for IIT JEE and many of them were attending since 10th standard. So we were kind of late. But nevertheless, he signed up and started attending these classes after the regular school. But the result was something we didn’t expect. He came home often sapped out after the long day and zero learning because the content was way above the level he was ready for. It is probably better fit for the people who were with the class right from 10th standard. Probably it was just a matter of time…but we finally decided to quit the coaching as it was getting too much. We settled with the idea that he can study at home with some online subscription like Byju’s course. Byju’s had brought out a tablet based video courses for online study and the explanations were at a pace that a curious child could understand the core concept, unlike in a coaching class where the focus was to get speed in solving sums. This focus on understanding the core concepts right before moving forward, proved a boon and a bane both, for him.

JEE heat for the late entrant

By middle of 12th standard, he felt a need for an in-person coaching on PCM (Physics, Chemistry and Maths) as the Byju’s course was not proving sufficient enough in terms of ‘extra push’. Though his mother was sitting and teaching him (not me, as the course content by now was beyond me). We engaged three home-tutors for him for a month or two. It was an interesting experiment at this stage. Chemistry teacher was a professional coach for JEE and had his focus on concepts and speed both. My son liked that combination. Physics teacher was in fact, a PhD student at IISER Pune and had to really start from ground up for every chapter. He lost the pace and my son lost interest. Maths teacher was a typical group tutor at home and had her own concepts messed up and my son could sense that every day. So, we finally called it quits.

So he came back to studying on his own. Greatest challenge through the 12th standard was that all his classmates or peers were hooked on to the coaching class rhythm and content levels (running way ahead of 12th standard content, more aligned with JEE) so he felt left out in the class as well as outside the class conversations with classmates. Even in the class, teachers would often say to students “you would have already studied this in the coaching classes, so we will go fast on this topic”, taking for granted that all the students attend JEE coaching. School where he studied, unfortunately was least bothered about this issue and focused on the final tally of students who make it to IIT (which was none of their doing anyways, but probably of the coaching class). This led to a serious problem of falling morale every now and then, especially after class tests.

Developing Self-Conviction

Meanwhile, on a parallel track, he was doing something ingenuous. To make sure that engineering is what he should be studying, he wrote to several interesting people he came in touch with on YouTube. These people were famous YouTube stars of DIY electronics. Many of them responded that whatever they were doing, a formal electronics engineering course would be a must for it to become a pro. Getting these answers from a self-explored channel was probably more convincing for him than any advice his parents or peers would have garnered for him.

CHOOSING THE COLLEGES TO APPLY

Yes, he applied for JEE. But then we knew that the chances of JEE are thin with very short period of preparation (4–5 months), so we opened another channel of looking abroad for undergrad engineering education. His SAT score came out to be 1420, which was neither excellent nor bad. Because this won’t get him into premium institutions like Stanford or Cornell etc. in the USA. We had focused our attention only on two new age colleges- Olin College in Boston and SUTD in Singapore. They were talking ‘immersive and experiential’ engineering education that resonated well with us. Olin went on to the say on its website that the current engineering education was outdated and hence they are pioneering a new pattern. However, they were extremely selective with 80 students in all. Despite all the eclectic paraphernalia my son could build up with his dabbling in DIY electronics and all the help I could must in writing SOP, he could not make it to Olin. We had to drop SUTD as it was clashing with JEE exams and we had to choose between them. On a fringe advice, we applied to Monash University in Australia and there he got an admit. But that time, the fee burden of studying without any scholarship was also weighing on our minds. The expense would be nearly Rs. 25–30 Lakhs every year. We also started looking up for European colleges. Many European colleges wanted IELTS exam score for English proficiency and SAT scores won’t do there. Germany and Netherlands had cheaper education but weren’t offering Electronics Engineering in English in the colleges we selected. And then, my son was also getting tired of filling forms every day and focusing on studies simultaneously so we rested with the options we had.

In India, we applied to VIT, Manipal, BITS, Mahindra Ecole and a newly discovered college Bennet University apart from IIT JEE. We excluded any regional colleges. My son and we (parents) were clear that unless our son gets the branch and college combination he wants, we are not falling for the next ‘available option’.

What we were looking for:

We wanted a college which would be teaching engineering in a pragmatic, immersive and hands-on way along with integrated learning from other domains i.e. humanities. And the sad news is these are countable few in the world, let alone India.

In terms of our background research on the options in India, here it is:

VIT: we heard good reviews. It is one of the go to college down south with a massive intake — around 10000 per year. There were several friends whose son or daughter would be studying at VIT and were happy. But then we also heard of how cramped the hostel rooms were and how large the class strength is. There were constant messages on my phone during June-July-Aug period for ‘quota seats’ (available for a few lakhs). I have no ideas how and who got my number and knew that my son is a candidate.

MANIPAL: Our son scored average marks in their exam so hope for best combination of campus (main campus at Manipal) + branch (ECE) was low. We visited this with our son for the admission. We sat in hall with a big digital screen showing the live ‘auction’ (of sorts) of seats and branch availability. Incidentally, Manipal runs another lesser known ‘exotic’ course for undergrad engineering where the admission is easy. Under this, students would study two years in India and two years in a college abroad (credit transfer to that college). And the list of option for these ‘abroad’ colleges, was a long one. We knew of a friend’s son who recently graduated from Purdue University, through this course. So this was not a farce J. It essentially brings down the overall expenditure (only 2 years abroad as against 4) and gets you a degree from international university. They have swanky hostel for the students of this course and it runs in a separate venue from regular undergrad engineering courses.

We spoke to a professor from this course who didn’t really appear to be motivated or excited. They were ruing the fact that students don’t attend classes etc. etc. We skipped this.

Mahindra Ecole: This college popped up in our list because when I taught at ISB (design thinking course as a visiting faculty), one of the professors from Mahindra Ecole connected with me. He was exploring how one can start Design Thinking course at their college (pretty progressive thought!!). I looked up the website and found it impressive. But when we visited the college a year later for my son, we found that director was removed recently. Professor who was in touch with me, moved on. The building was in the same campus in Tech Mahindra but appeared slightly uncared for. We were fresh from our visit to BITS Hyderabad campus and so the comparison was stark. Later, the kind of marketing calls we got from Mahindra Ecole made our decision firmer to drop it from the list.

BITS: We went and saw the Hyderabad campus. We (my son and I) also spoke to the students there. He could not get through the entrance exam, else that would have been our natural choice after IIT.

Ashoka University: In the discussion of engineering education, we also had a wild card of Ashoka University which offers BSc in Computer Science and Physics apart from liberal arts courses. My son made it to Ashoka through the highly personalized interview after the written test and he liked what he heard there. There were rave reviews from friends whose son/daughter studied there. I visited the campus in Sonepat and spoke to a few students there. I was impressed with what I heard in terms of quick independent minds. They appeared way more polished in the articulation as against what I heard in conversations in engineering colleges in my recce trips. Fee was steep, 9–10L a year as against 3–5L a year of engineering. Professors had impressive background and we were almost signing up for this.

Bennett University: This was another wild card. While flipping pages of an airline magazine in the plane, I chanced upon an ad for a conference which was being sponsored by Bennett University. This was a conference on AI under the aegis of CII (Confederation of Indian Industries). I was curious how a new unheard college is inching up close to CII on AI. When I visited this college in Greater NOIDA it was running in its second year of inception. Infrastructure was in buildup phase. Building was nothing close to ‘organic’ or ‘academia like’ as I saw at Ashoka, BITS or at NID or IITs but it was modern and upmarket. It was like a modern office block. Professors for engineering stream and the chancellor on board had impressive resume (many of them ex-IITians). We signed up for it finally after flip-flopping a bit between Ashoka University and this.

HOW IS IT COMING ALONG AT BENNETT?

Very few parents would comment on this question while their wards are still at the college. But the frank opinion on our experience here is 4 on 5 despite some hiccups that we see. We are happy with our decision overall.

Why?

1. Quality of Faculty: It is as promised. Many of the professors teaching my son have background in IITs, Cornell etc. Now whether all of them are teaching in an amazing way or not, is a different question. And that, many students, as our son says, resort to IIT Roorkee open courseware online for better understanding of the subject. But that, I know from my IIT experience, that not every professor at IIT was a ‘good’ teacher. Some were pathetic in their teaching skills.

2. Infrastructure: Have you heard of world class three badminton courts, three squash courts, multiple tennis courts in an institution which has not even taken in 30% of the students it has envision yet. I was positively impressed with this. My sons uses these facilities and he is happy. I am told at VIT there is a separate charge for using gym, swimming pool etc.

Labs etc are recent and avant grade. Of course, they don’t match the expansive infrastructure IITs have collected over the years with generous government funding.

3. Peer Group: My son has found his grove in the clubs there. His interest in DIY electronics and coding has takers there. He scores nearly full in his subject of choice i.e. electronics while he lags behind in others. So is some other student he tells me, who tops the computers science courses but lags in others. His interest in music is intact and there are many takers there. Most importantly, this college has media and law students as well, so a diversified peer group is a good thing to happen.

4. Focus on Entrepreneurship & Life skills: Knowing that engineering graduates in India lack severely on essential business readiness, Bennet seems to have got this right. Life skills related inputs like conflict resolution, communication etc. are an essential part of every semester. There seems to be a focus on entrepreneurship as Times of India group has stationed Power of Ideas initiative there. I am happy with the feedback on this account I get from him.

5. Foreign collaboration: Times group knows about branding and they do play big on the collaboration. The curriculum for engineering apparently has been set by Georgia Tech. While student exchange and foreign faculty at times, is a possibility, it is not a guaranteed stuff and that is perfectly fine.

So have we got the ‘experiential/immersive’ education institution we had dreamt of for our son? Simple answer is no. What we got is a progressive, affordable, promising version of the existing educational institutions without peddling hard for IIT JEE. And we are happy! Our son is at peace. That is most important in the turbulent world of students today!

Design Thinking | Innovation Strategy | Design | Futures Studies | Turian Labs. Author-Skyway Interpreter & Madhurimayan