kitchen table math, the sequel: The Day of Reckoning, brought to us from India

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Day of Reckoning, brought to us from India

Together, the rise of Reform Math, the reduction in ability-based grouping and AP classes, the demise of the close reading and the analytical essay (see also this), and the growing rarity of instruction in the finer points of English grammar and sentence construction, have caused current and future American high school graduates to be decreasingly prepared for college. As more and more American college students display skills in math, writing, and reading comprehension that are way below expectations (ending up, even in some of the more selective colleges, in remedial math and writing classes), college admissions committees are increasingly looking abroad.

While much of the news about overseas applicants centers on China, with its thousands of Ivy League-aspiring applicants and their glossy, high-production value applications (and the growing suspicion that a fair amount of cheating is involved), it's India, I predict, that will bring to the American K12 education system the day of reckoning that we so desperately need it to have. First, unlike their Chinese counterparts, college applicants from India face no linguistic barriers; many speak and write a much more eloquent English than American (and even British) students do. Second, there are apparently tons of extremely well-qualified Indian applicants pinning their hopes on America's top colleges.

Indeed, as an October New York Times article inadvertently suggests, the Day of Reckoning may be close at hand:
Moulshri Mohan was an excellent student at one of the top private high schools in New Delhi. When she applied to colleges, she received scholarship offers of $20,000 from Dartmouth and $15,000 from Smith. Her pile of acceptance letters would have made any ambitious teenager smile: Cornell, Bryn Mawr, Duke, Wesleyan, Barnard and the University of Virginia.

But because of her 93.5 percent cumulative score on her final high school examinations, which are the sole criteria for admission to most colleges here, Ms. Mohan was rejected by the top colleges at Delhi University, better known as D.U., her family’s first choice and one of India’s top schools.

Ms. Mohan, 18, is now one of a surging number of Indian students attending American colleges and universities, as competition in India has grown formidable, even for the best students. With about half of India’s 1.2 billion people under the age of 25, and with the ranks of the middle class swelling, the country’s handful of highly selective universities are overwhelmed.
True, another reason--indeed, the only reason mentioned in the Times article--why American recruiters are seizing on this opportunity is because so many of the crème de la crème of overseas students are wealthy enough to pay full tuition, unlike many of their American counterparts. But it also helps that the K12 schools they attend aren't using Reform Math, aren't renouncing ability-based grouping, and aren't failing to provide college prep classes that are truly college preparatory. Indeed, if it were primarily her parents' pocket books that make Moulshri Mohan so attractive to Dartmouth and Smith, why are they offering her so many thousands of dollars of scholarship money?

So here are my dire predictions. In the next ten years, as the effects of Reform Math continue to percolate up the American school system, and as the number of highly qualified Indian students continues to outpace the numbers of spots at the best Indian universities, there will be a the growing displacement of American students by Indian students. Only then will a large enough proportion of the Powers that Be start realizing how urgent it is to enact actual education reform--reform, that is, that reverses the century's-long tide that has pushed our K12 schools further and further away from what's happening in the most successful school systems overseas.

(Cross-posted at Out In Left Field)


Allison said...

Savvy Indians who are not from the top caste and hence cannot get into IIT and the like have spent the last decade or two getting into lower-than-top-tier colleges in the US, and using their entrance there to transfer to top schools as sophomores or juniors, and then get into the top grad schools here. It will continue, but it's interesting that the lower quality students in the high caste are now doing this to get around IIT too.

Anonymous said...

The discussion is about how we can help our kids compete in the new world (Indians, Chinese etc). Lets forget the caste system in India or immovability in China.

MagisterGreen said...

I, for one, welcome our new Indian educational overlords and say, if they can help move our schools in a positive direction (particularly in regard to how we teach English), bully to them.

Allison said...

Well, "the" discussion is many things. My point wasn't to change India or China. My point was that Katharine's comments mean even more Indians trying to come here to make headway now. That is, they had already gamed the system better than our students do, and now the competition is getting even stiffer.

Anonymous said...


how are these savvy indians able to transfer to top schools as sophomores or juniors ?
what's the trick ?

Allison said...

They work incredibly hard and are incredibly bright. They then get superb grades and superb recs at the small college, and then apply to the top school. They take an enormous risk, and it pays off for them.

Intl students historically must be the top of the top of the top to get in to top schools--one, the numbers applying vs spaces available to intl students, ("how many gold medals do you have?" was the informal way the MIT admission folks I know talked about it. They were comparing Olympic medal winners to other Olympic Medal winners--that was the caliber of the intl student that DIDN'T get in), and two, the inability of a US college to gauge the real preparedness of the foreign students.

Going to a US college solves that last problem, especially for people who can't possibly get themselves into the top elite schools in foreign countries--people know what the transcripts and tests mean. As Chemprof has noted, transfer students seldom get fin aid, so that's another reason few American students take the risk this way (transferring from a jc to a state system like the Univ of CA is different; there's a defined path with a guarantee of acceptance.)

That top univs in the US now have enough experience with top high schools in India to judge their students' quality means they've had enough students from these schools for several years now, which is interesting in itself.

For some reason, I have this belief in my head that MIT had a hard limit on how many intl students they took as undergrads every year. It was 4% or 7% or something of the class, never more. I don't know why I think this though, and I can't find any federal law that would dictate this, nor even any reference anywhere in literate to indicate this was a school policy.

I wonder if there is such a rule--a visa rule, maybe?--or if it's just been a gentleman's policy that Harvard, MIT and the like don't take 95% of their students from overseas. It would seem to be a point of interest in the ongoing role of higher ed debate.

Grace said...

It's interesting that the majors mentioned in that NYT article included humanities and social sciences, not the STEM majors I usually associate with international students. I've heard first-hand stories how Asian students are kicking butt and playing havoc with the grade curve in non-STEM courses at one US college. This should be a wake up call, but let's see.

Grace said...

Katherine, the last link in the first paragraph seems to be broken.

ChemProf said...

We had a family from Singapore a few years ago go this route. In Singapore, students graduate high school at 16, go to college for two years then university for three. The father worked out that he could send his daughters to a small school (mine) in the US for two years, have them transfer to a university, and graduate with a US degree that would be impressive in Singapore when they were 20 years old. And yes, he could pay the whole bill.

To be clear, there is not much MERIT aid for transfer students, but they still qualify for federal financial aid (but of course international students don't anyway).

I do think that there is an informal cap on international students, even for grad school on those who do their undergrad in the US. I've had a couple of research students who were international students, and they didn't get into schools that they should have, based on their grades/test scores (particularly for the UCs). Part of it is that there is a lot of overhead to keeping international students legal, so having too many is not to a university's advantage.

Anonymous said...

"I do think that there is an informal cap on international students, even for grad school on those who do their undergrad in the US."

As part of my job, I spend a small amount of time recruiting and interviewing. I get to go through a lot of resumes.

Last year I was spending some of my time on CS students from an engineering school(*) that US News and World Reports scores as "most selective."

I got a "book" of pretty much all the students looking for jobs. One of the interesting things about the book was that it had a slot for employment eligibility status (with values such as "US Citizen", "Green Card", "H1B Visa"). This is interesting because I'm not legally allowed to ask for this information (I can ask if they have a legal right to work in the country), so I can never be sure how many candidates are US citizens. This field told me what the percentage was from this school.

75% of the graduate students who were getting ready to graduate and looking for a job were foreign. Now ... maybe most of the US citizens already had jobs, but this was late in 2010 for kids graduating in May/June 2011. I doubt that most of the US citizen kids had jobs lined up that far ahead of time.

If there is an informal cap, it is either very high or does not extend very far outside the Ivy League schools (and maybe MIT and Stanford).

-Mark Roulo

(*) I'm not quite sure what term to use here. The idea is that the school wasn't a 'liberal arts' school like Harvard or Wesleyan.

Catherine Johnson said...

MagisterGreen writes: I, for one, welcome our new Indian educational overlords

Oh, yes, me, too!

We seem to have so many overlords these days: policy elites, central bankers, people who know what a basis point is....a coterie of Indian educational overlords just stands to reason.


Well, I'm not kidding about the central bankers and the policy elites.

Catherine Johnson said...

A friend of ours, who is a top financial administrator at a small, selective liberal arts college, told us his college is pretty much dependent on Chinese nationals at this point. 12% of the student body is students from China paying full fare.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

At Univ of California, for grad school admissions in STEM fields, we have some strong incentives to keep the number of foreign students down.

PhD students in STEM fields don't generally pay their own way—either they have fellowships, TAships, or graduate research positions. Foreign students at UC cost a lot of tuition (until they advance to candidacy), and this tuition either comes from the department budget (for TAs and local fellowships) or out of a grant. Many of the outside fellowships are limited to US citizens or permanent residents. Domestic students are cheaper, as well as getting more brownie points with the legislature.

Of course, with state funding disappearing and in-state tuition soaring, the differential in price is getting smaller, so we are likely to see an increase in foreign grad students, as their quality/price ratio gets more favorable.