Nov 27, 2007

Indian vs US Undergraduate Education

Over the past few months, I have got quite a bit of exposure to the undergraduates here. Interacting with them has inevitably led me to compare the system of UG education in India and in the US.
1) Courses:
There is a great deal of flexibility in the kind of courses that a student here has to take to complete the degree. There are only a few 'core courses' that every major student HAS to take. Most universities require 120 credits for the degree, of which only about 20-30 come under the 'core' criteria. This is in total contrast to the requirements in India, where a student has to take and clear all the courses specified by the college/university. That is the case with the arts colleges, and I think it is the same with the Engg. colleges as well. If I am not wrong, pl. do correct me.
2) Diversity:
The language courses here are much more useful than the mindless 'memorize-and-spit' stuff an arts college student in India has to take. There are a couple of courses in 'Academic writing' or 'Analytical writing' which greatly enhance one's language and writing skills. Also, the educational curricula are quite diverse in most universities, which means the students HAVE to take at least one course each in areas such as US history, European history, Fine arts, philosophy, maths, physics/chemistry/biology, and psychology/sociology. This widens the student's perspectives in several disciplines.
3) Class selection:
So, the student here chooses the subject based on: a) the general liking of the course; b) the teaching/grading skills of the professor from; c) time-conflict with other courses; and d) interestingly, most want to avoid classes on monday/friday, so that they can have a long holiday. Also, the students who commute long distance, like to have most classes on the same day itself.
Moreover, if a student is very good, he/she would be allowed to take more courses in a semester. Many students make use of the summer courses (which most dont do - they take time off from studies during summer) and even the 3-week Winter courses and it is possible for one to finish a 4-year program in just 2 years.
4) Quality at the entry level:
I was shocked to know that most students get their first introduction to mainstream chemistry, physics and biology when they enter the degree program. I was told that, during school education, they are mostly taught as to how to attend the classes, how to take notes, etc. In essence, the things that we learn in class 11 in India are taught in the beginning of the UG program here.
5) Concept of 'class':
The concept of a batch hardly exists. It is highly possible that two students who join a given major in the same year may never be in a single class together throughout the entire UG program. The strength of some of the classes is humongous, with some having even 400+ students. Sometimes, there would be several sessions of the same subject offered in the same semester.
Because of the huge number of the students admitted to a major in the same year, the busy schedule of the professors (teaching + research), and the work that the students do to earn their tuition fees/living, each student attends only about 15-18 hours per week of classes. In India, it is 25 hours a week, mostly. That gives more time for a given course to be taught, without too much rushing. Here, the profs with improper planning would end up short of their syllabus or hurrying up.
6) Grading:
All colleges and universities work the way 'autonomous' institutions in India work. It is upto the instructor how he/she wishes to handle the tests. So, there are cases like (i) frequent quizzes/tests followed by a cumulative final, similar to the Indian system, (ii) only short quizzes/tests, with a final being just another short test (non-cumulative), and (iii) grading based only on presentations/papers submitted. The questions could all be multiple-choiced, or descriptive. There is no guarantee that the grading system of a professor in one semester would continue to the next sem. If the whole class performs poorly, usually there is a 'curving', which means a few marks would be added to all the grades.
Unlike in India, where 35% is a passing mark, one can fail here even if he/she scores 60%. Also, most papers would require one to answer all the questions.. so the spoilling system of 'choice' in India, where one student can skip a chapter fully and still score 100%, is not possible here. Because of the tough grading, IMHO, the student has to learn more here than in India to pass or get high grades. Due to the letter system of grading, someone who has got 100% answers right might be considered equal to one with 91% answers - both get an A.
7) Professional degrees:
While a BA/BSc student inIndia takes about 30 courses towards a 3-year degree, one here takes about 40 for a 4-year degree. Similar to the way a BE/BTech student in India spends 4 years for the degree, an engg. degree in US too requires about 140 credits. Unlike in India where a student can join a medical/dental/pharmacy/law college after class 12, in US, one has to complete the UG degree, or some form of pre-medical or pre-dental program to enter such specialized schools. That is bcos of relatively low quality of class-12 education.
8) Attendance:
In India, all instructors take the attendance; so if someone misses a lot of classes, he/she could be debarred from taking the final exams. Here, there are some who would not take attendance for even a single class.. thus, by simply studying the prescribed book at home, and getting the notes from the friends, a student can get an A. On the other extreme, there are some who would reduce the grade point to the next lower letter grade, for a student who has been absent for just 4 classes.
9) Class timings:
Unlike the fixed 10AM-4 PM or whatever fixed timing in Indian colleges/universities, here there are some classes which start at 8 AM, and some which go on till 10 PM.
10) Choice of university:
The students choose the university based on (i) its national ranking, (ii) presence in the same state (to save tuition fees), (iii) the quality of the particular program in the university and (iv) the performance of the university's football/basketball teams, though not necessarily in the same order.
Considering all these things, I was wondering which one is better - Indian or American system. Though in India one gets good opportunities to do well, not many grab them. Moreover, the Indian system encourages 'mugging up' bcos many times one has to reproduce the answers verbatim. In US, many courses make one to think a lot, do quite a bit of reading outside the books, and enhance writing, presentation skills, non-linear/abstract thinking.


tt_giant said...

Nice comparison Raju.

In engg, there is some choice, atleast on paper. We have electives to choose from in the final year. But most of the time, not all the electives are available.

In UG courses here, the curriculum is very flexible. As you said, only a fraction of the credits needs to be in the majoring area.

Things are slightly tighter in grad level though. But you do have freedom.

The importance is given to concepts and practicality of a subject, unlike memorization.

However, closeness to people may be better in the batch-setting in India. My close friends in grad school were my roomies and people in my lab.

Good one. BTW, what happened to your phone? Number maathiteengala?

Idlus said...

Students here are not spoon fed by the professors . Professors mostly, give a gist of the subject. It is the students duty to do more readings for exam based on the materials covered since exam questions demand specific answers. So it makes sense that students in US don't require alot of hrs in class.
Though you've not mentioned, I personally feel that US profs are friendlier, less/non arrogant, casual as compared to Indian profs. In other words, profs here are conscious that they don't possess supernatural powers.

Me too said...

Good one! I've heard that the education system here is a breeze till the high school level. But it surprised me when some of my cousins who were school toppers their entire life in India felt difficult to cope with in grad/post grad school in the beginning here!

IMO, One big difference in the education system here and there is that, in India, we get to learn a bit of everything(jack of all!)whereas here, whatever is taught, they are made to learn thoroughly and well.

Did you know in some states like Maharashtra, for UG, one can decide what subject to major in at the 3rd year? Like one can choose Maths, Phy, Chem in first year, drop any one in the second yr and still get one yr to decide which one to major in!!

Raju said...

Deepak, thanks.. I agree with you that the courses here focus more on concepts and practicality..

Fone # is the same.. Many times the signal strength is very poor in and around my home..
Idlus, welcome here!! :)

I totally agree with you on the professors. LOL on the 'supernatural' part.. :)
Aparna, thanks to u too..
In fact, I disagree with you on Indians being 'Jack of all', at least in the arts&sciences category. As I mentioned in the post, the versatility of the US curricula is designed to expose the students to various disciplines of arts, sciences and skills. May be it has more to do with the way one learns a subject - assimilation vs memorizing. Also, whereas the syllabus changes very little over a long time in India, here they have a tendency to update it according to the recent developments.

As in Maharashtra that you have mentioned, even in Karnataka the system is mostly the 'triple-major' concept.. they call it PCM. That opens them a lot of opportunities to study after the BSc but they struggle in comparison to the single-major BSc students.

i think therefore i am said...

sometimes i feel tat these many options at the undergrad school level is a good thing because at 17(most likely age to start UG in India)mot people dont know wat they want and are forced to stick to the career they want.
like ttg mentioned there are things besides education that happen in college. New Telugu Movie Happy Days is a recent case in point

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Raju said...

Cogito, that point about the question of the real liking of a subject at a young age is a very valid one. I believe that, in many engg. colleges in India, one chooses the major in the second year, which is somewhat better at least.

I have heard a bit about 'Happy Days' recently. Will try to watch it.

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Anonymous said...

Are there non-coed schools in the US like in India?

Raju said...

Anon, yeah, there are high schools exclusively for boys or girls.. though their % is much less than what you see in India. In universities, there are none, but there are a few non-coed colleges, which again, form only a tiny %.

Sammy said...


I am an undergraduate studying in Berkeley. I have pursuing electronics for the last 2.5 years here now. Firstly, I would like to congratulate Raju on one of the more comprehensive comparisions between the US and Indian education systems that I have read, and believe me, I have read a lot about this topic. Having gotten an offer from both, IIT and Berkeley, I sitll remeber what a nightmare it was for my family and me to select just one of these two most prestigious schools in the world. Having made the decsion of coming to berkeley based precisely on the reasons mentioned in the article, I can happily say that it was and is a decision that I will cherish and reap benefits from, for the rest of my life.
Due to respect for the readers time, I would stright away like to mention the bottom line:
Given a chance to come to the US for undergraduate studies in any of the top10 technical unviersities (rankings can be easily found), do not even think twice before going to the US. Not only will you find all the freedom and flexibility that the article talks about, but you will also be well equipped to make the decision of either staying and working in the US for the rest of your life, or exploring opportunities in India. There are innumerable instances of people that I knowm who went to the US at ages of 24 and 25 and had no choice but to stay in the american system by the time they undestood it (abt 30). Even if they wanted to come back to India, they did not have a working base to come back to. I on the other hand have a good experience in the american system of education and life, having worked part time and having seen Indian homes of Vice presidents of two Multinationals. Consequentially, when I am done with my B.E. at 22, I can work here to get some experience and then start looking for opprtunities in India, the country where I finally plan to settle.

Raju said...

Sammy, Welcome here, and sorry for the late reply.

Thanks for your kind words, and congrats for your achievements. I agree with you that the decision on whether to stay in the US and go back to India should be completely based on one's own wishes and likings. Better not to implement someone else's wish for such an important decision.

rohit said...

Dude what do u think about doing your undergraduation in colleges that are not very well ranked as in not the top 10 like Drexel, Brandeis and all that are arnd rank 50
Is it worth investing so much money ( even assuming a decent schol) for undergrad if you are studying in one of the top NITs, IITs or other colleges in India at ug. As in guys from IITs and top NITs get into good schools too

Sharath said...


I am an undergraduate first year studying in A&M.

Well the only issue is that it is expensive to study in the US.

I chose A&M because its the cheapest university in the top 10 for engineering.

My father need to budget atleast $25,000 (~Rs.10lacks) every year.
Which is a significant amount for a UG program.
Unless I get some sort of scholarship after the first year.

Raju said...

Rohit, I would say that upto top 50 is OK to study here if you get reasonable scholarship. IITs and quite later NITs are also definitely worth studying in India if you get into them.
If you get into any top 10 schools in US, it is worth spending any amount of money to study here.
Sharath, yeah true.. it is indeed expensive. I see that it takes at least $100,000 for a complete UG degree in US.. In some schools, it could go upto as high as $200,000. If you manage to do well, and get a job here, it is worth about 3-4 years of salary. And, if you are planning about settling here, it is much easier too. So, though the cost is a concern at the moment, in the long run, it is an exellent investment.

Ashish said...

nice comparison. i would like some advice from you. it's my 3rd year at BITS. what do you think, should someone in my position quit from here and pursue UG education in the US/Canada/UK?

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dileep said...

i'm from a middle class,
is it good to invest such a huge money for my ug abroad??