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Monday, June 12, 2017

Are there Alternatives to IITs

In the series of blogs about various questions that I get asked in this admission season, the question that I am discussing today is:

I have a good JEE advanced rank, and can get a good combination of program/institute. But I also have admission offer from another top place, both within India and abroad. What should I prefer.

One issue is that of foreign universities, both US/Canadian universities, as well as places in Singapore, HongKong, etc. The other issue is that of choice within India, IISc, IISERs, CMI, IIITs (particularly Hyderabad and Delhi), Ashoka University, etc.

First of all, I am extremely pleased to see that a couple of students from within the top 1000 have declared that they are not going to join IITs. Here is the list I know so far:

The JEE rank 5 wants to study Mathematics. And he is planning to join Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

The JEE Rank 10 wants to study a combination of Computer Science and Physics. And he is planning to join University of Pennsylvania.

The JEE Rank 38 wants to study Physics and Maths from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  (Based on his profile on quora.)

The JEE Rank 45 is interested in Physics, and will study in Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. (Based on comments on this blog.)

The JEE Rank 446 wants to study a combination of Maths and Computing. And he is planning to join Chennai Mathematical Institute.

(If you come across any story of anyone in top 1000 not joining IIT system, do let me know, through comment, or email.)

I am also aware that every year some students who couldn't get admission to old 5 IITs in Computer Science have been joining IIIT Hyderabad and IIIT Delhi instead of going for newer IITs. Of course, many prefer IISc Bangalore and a few even IISERs for science programs over the science programs in IITs. At below 3000 ranks, students start considering other places which will give them a discipline of their choice, including BITS, NITs, IIITs. I think it is important for the parents to know that IITs are not the only places worth studying in, and any time, someone in the top 1000 ranks decide to study outside IIT system, it strengthens that message. Eventually, if we start taking alternatives seriously, the stress of JEE will come down and it will be a great thing for the society.

I digress. Let us come back to the issue of foreign universities. There are multiple parameters that we need to consider. On the positive side, any of the top 50 (or even more) US universities would have a better teaching-learning experience than any IIT. You can choose your courses. You can choose your major/minor. You can do multiple subjects. The infrastructure will be better. The faculty interest in teaching is likely to be higher. The quality of Teaching Assistants will be better, and so on. On the negative side are a couple of issues. The primary one is cost. It is just too expensive and unaffordable for most, and I am not in favor of taking a large loan for higher education which will force you to take up immediate job and that too abroad to repay that loan. The second reason is cultural. Most 17 years old in India have had no freedom at home. They have had very little exposure to different cultures even within India. And there is doubt if such persons would adjust quickly enough in a foreign land. But, of course, if you have family and friends near the place you are considering, who can help you settle in the beginning, this reason will not be very important. A reason related to costs and RoI is that while the quality of education in IITs may not be as good as many of the foreign universities, the membership of Alumni Association is hugely valuable.

So my own summary is that if you can easily afford (no loans), and you have admission to a good university, and you are not considering a job in India immediately after your education, and you think you will be able to handle vast cultural differences, then go for it. If the answer to any of the conditions is in negative, take admission in an IIT.

Comparison of IITs with other institutes within India is really about the specific interests that you have which may be satisfied more by a non-IIT institute than an IIT. If you want to study a combination of Maths and Computing, for example, most IITs would offer this through their Mathematics department and even CS courses will be taught by Maths faculty (but do check each program, there is a lot of variation), and CMI does a fantastic job of offering such a program. At CMI, Maths faculty teach Maths courses, and CS faculty teach CS courses. A few alums of CMI that I know have been extremely happy with their experiences. In case of science programs, IITs force you to choose the program at the time of admission and change of program is very difficult, while IISc and IISERs give you a broad based education and offer flexibility. Programs like Information Technology and Social Science (and also, Computer Science and Design) in IIIT-Delhi offer you a unique combination not available anywhere else in the country. So, if you are one of those few students who know what they want to study, then you must select the best place to study that discipline (or combination) without worrying about the IIT tag. Membership of Alumni Association is valuable but not to the extent that you kill your passion for it.

Added on 13th June, 2017:
Thanks to Prof. Amit Sheth who reminded me of this talk by Malcolm Gladwell who explains "Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder" which means that we are so enchanted by association with Elite Institutions that we forget our self interest. The toppers of average institutes perform better than average students of elite institutions is the main argument. Here is the youtube link for the video.

He also has pointed out this excellent article by Hunter Rawlings in Washington Post. In one line, "The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum." This also points to hard working students getting more out of education at an average place than students not working hard at a top institution

What these two excellent articles are intending to say in the context of this blog article is that there indeed are lots of alternatives to IITs. You only need to make sure that you work hard.


Abhi said...

Jee rank 38, Debaditya Pramanik is going to MIT(USA) for Physics

Jee Rank 45, Irin Ghosh going to IISc

Gagan Agrawal said...

I want to argue a bit against the statement that top 50 or more US Universities will provide better undergraduate education than IITs. Now, by the way of background, I am an IIT Kanpur graduate who did PhD in US and have taught at US Universities for the past 21 years (computer science).

One argument in favor of US Universities might be that if you want to do a specific discipline, it may be easier than in IITs. But keeping that aside, in terms of quality of education, quality of peers, student-faculty ratio etc. I feel that only around 20-30 schools in US will be better than IITs.

Clearly, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, CMU (mostly in computer science/engineering/robotics), and CalTech (certain engineering/science fields) are world-leaders in research and education and it will be hard to any school outside US to compete with them. They have a very high bar for selecting and retaining faculty and very selective student body. With exception of Berkeley, faculty to student ratio is better or comparable to IITs. Next, consider the 8 Ivy League Schools and other ivy-like schools (Duke, Northwestern, Hopkins, Rice, may be a couple of others). They again have very high standard for recruiting and retaining faculty, and have a very selective student body. Compared to IITs, their student body is selected through accomplishments in multiple areas, and not just through Maths+Physics+Chemistry scores. And they will likely contribute to better overall development of students over the four years.

Next I will put large state schools that are considered top-notch in research in engineering/computer science (though Berkeley qualifies here, I have put it with MIT and others at the top). They will be, UCLA, UIUC, Georgia Tech, Michigan, Texas Austin, Wisconsin, Maryland, UCSD, UW Seattle, Purdue, and probably some others depending upon the field (e.g., UCSB and Minnesota are very top in chemical engineering). I will say that there are pluses and minuses between them and IITs in terms of undergraduate education. Their faculty is clearly more accomplished in research as compared to IIT faculty. On the other hand, IITs have better faculty-student ratio, faculty is more involved in undergraduate teaching, and in most cases, average quality of undergraduates is going to be better in IITs.

So, depending upon what you value, I will say that number of US Universities providing better education than IITs is between 20 and 30. And that comes with a very high cost, and challenges related to culture and distance that Dheeraj has already talked about.

Saikat Kar said...

JEE RANK 38 and 45 are from WEST BENGAL and both will be joining IISC to study BS Physics.

rsrikanth05 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

Sir, I want to know which is better college for ECE branch: Delhi Technological University(DTU), Netaji Subhash Institute of Technology(NSIT) or IIITD?

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Srikanth, Thanks for asking. But Wire asked me in the morning, and it is already on their site.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Abhi and @Saikat, Indian Express is claiming that AIR 38 wants to study in IITs. Here is the link:

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Kartik, I am at IIIT-Delhi and know more about this place than other two places. And this is a great place to study.

Abhi said...

@Sir_Dheeraj I'm sure the reporting is factual. Here is his quora profile

Amit Sheth said...

Dr. Gagan Agrawal has extensive experience and I respect his observations. However, I feel the rankings give only a small part of the story and can often misguide. Here I give a somewhat different take for an interested reader to consider:

askingForSanity said...

Agree with Gagan who says "want to argue a bit against the statement that top 50 or more US Universities will provide better undergraduate education than IITs."

On the other hand, points of disagreement with Gagan "IITs have better faculty-student ratio" -- not sure about that when you consider the large M.Tech population and the time spent on them in *teaching* a

"faculty is more involved in undergraduate teaching," .. again not sure about that.. this was true about earlier when I (and from Gagan's data) Gagan when to the IITs..

"and in most cases, average quality of undergraduates is going to be better in IITs." cause for concern with the rapid proliferation of the IITs.

Overall, despite some of my reservations above, I agree with Gagan that Dheeraj's statement was quite sweeping.