Posted by: Vikram | September 17, 2008

The college culture of the United States and India – Part 1

For those fortunate enough to go to college (about 25 % of the youth in the US, 11 % in India), it is certainly one of the most interesting and important phases of life. I did my undergraduate studies in America and am doing my graduate studies here as well. While grad school atmospheres may not differ greatly from place to place, there definitely seems to be a considerable difference between the undergrad culture. This is the conclusion I have made after various chats with my fellow grad students who have done their undergrad studies in India, and reading the blogs and other websites related to undergrad studies in India.

I think one of the major differences between universities in India and America is the relative freedom a student has when it comes to choosing their curriculum. This is true of both the course of study (Eg.: Electrical Engineering, Business, Philosophy) and individual courses themselves (Eg: Fluid Mechanics, History of Innovation in America etc.). This freedom is the result of many factors. But I think the main one is that most US universities tend to have a more complete campus, i.e., good, well-staffed and well-attended schools of science, engineering, business, liberal arts and so on, all in the same 40 acres or so. The amount of research talent on the campus of any major university in the US is amazing, and a good student should try to make use every possible department they are interested in, especially in the first year of school. Most students come in not sure of what they want to do and get a feel for things before they choose their preferred program of study.

I think universities in India tend to be more focused, on education and in particular, engineering education. Indian universities need to diversify and strengthen their departments in all areas if they are to produce a well-rounded student body. They are not going to compete with US universities anytime soon, but if we can offer our own researchers a decent environment to work in, I am sure they will do very good work. Even with the current problems, India outputs a large number of papers and the highest number per capita income. There is so much diversity in India, in its culture, languages and problems that it is a very fertile area for dedicated researchers. Some efforts are being made, but they are still focussed mainly on technology.

I think another important difference between most Indian and American univs is that almost US college students live near their university and not with their parents. This does happen with the IITs and the NITs, but I think those are the exception rather than the norm. I think living by yourself at that age is crucial to achieving a certain level of emotional maturity and independence, although of course, some will misuse it. So many of the things I learnt to do by myself, cooking, doing laundry, paying bills etc, I wouldnt have learnt if I had stayed with my parents while going to college. And there is the benefits of people (esp. girls) breaking the shackles of their families, and finding their partners in college on their own terms.

One interesting thing about American colleges is college sports. The big public universities all have strong sports programs as I have mentioned earlier. The colleges offer scholarships to good athletes from high-schools and they often play for the college teams, in front of as many as 100,000 people. Needless to say, most of the fans are the students of the college. It is their attendance that mostly pays for the world-class facilities for the athletes. Indeed college sports is an integral but exaggerated part of the broader American culture, with people following their teams for years after graduating.

I will talk more about the other aspects of college life here in some upcoming posts.


  1. In India, there are isolated islands of excellence in a huge cesspool of mediocrity. One problem is that college education is almost wholly subsidised by the government. Then of course is the rigidity in course structures and fixed time frames for completing studies…19th century systems are firmly in place.

    Hopefully, higher education will be privatised meaningfully soon. There is much political opposition to establishing ‘elitist’ centres of learning beyond the reach of ordinary citizens, with an eye on votes. The really danger though is that, like in all other fields, Indian will first display their genius in setting up sub-standard and shady institutions, defeating the very aim of privatisation of education. But, I am sure adequate safeguards and checks can be put in place if there is a will.

    Be that as it may, the usual inertia and lack of appreciation of the value of time continues and very little is being done.

  2. I think we can compromise with quality as long as more people can have access to it. The real news happen at the job interview anyway.

  3. Imagine Indian schools if we had no private schools. And now with International boards International Baccalaureate and A levels, we have more options. At the college level in Pune, Bharti Vidyapeeth, Symbiosis, and MIT have Management, medical,law colleges, and if nothing else at least hey are accountable.
    I am all for liberalization of education in India. The subsidized education is fine, but it definitely needs to be supplemented with private institutions.
    Having wider options will also help us get over the Indian obsession with Science and Technology.

    It is true that the new institutes have given people more options and more chances. But, in this post one of things I have emphasized was the completeness of an American University campus. I dont know if these new institutes have that completeness yet, and it really helps people switch between programs. That is important because it is a bit unfair to think that 17-18 year old kids know what they want to do with their lives.

  4. the age bar in indian educational institutions is something that defeats the purpose of learning.

    many are not fortunate enough to know that they will great public policy makers until they are 30 and they have no where to go !

  5. […] are many other qualities that make America exceptional, its research universities are unmatched (when considered as a whole) anywhere else in the world, there is a very high emphasis on […]

  6. […] have. But the basic issue goes back to the lack of completeness that I talked about in my first post on this subject. It is much more likely that a political science student would be interested in the US elections […]

  7. yes Anrosh is right , many when they realize they need it find the doors closed forever.
    Why shd we have age bar for formal education?! you are right, you cannot do engg, fine arts, together! I studied Arts and now am doomed to remain an arts person for ever even tho I wd now like to study genetics n given the chance wd do well too 🙂 I know a lot of housewives who wd like to continue aft their children grow up-but no chance 😦

  8. I like the varied postings. But I want to make one point – Not only IIT/NIT, there are so many other colleges where students go, stay in Hostels to study. Also I don’t feel anything wrong in staying with your parents and going to a college nearby; and another thing is not all can afford (monetarily and personally) staying in hostels

    Pradeep, yes you are right living expenses are a big part of the bills American parents have to pay for their kids education. Indian parents might not be able to afford the same.

  9. Vikram, I found a good link in which you might be interested in giving it a look.

    • Thanks for the link Yayaver. Very good write up, I will comment on it tonight.

  10. […] on university education in America and what India can take from them, here are the other parts Part 1, Part 2 and Part […]

  11. Quite an interesting set of articles.

    • Thanks Sojourner 🙂

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