India produces nearly 1.6 million engineers from its more than 2,900 colleges every year
Many want to work in the US but that's getting harder under Trump
Editor’s Note: Pankti Mehta is a Mumbai-based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
They’re harder to get into than Harvard, Yale or Oxford.
India’s 23 elite engineering schools attract more than a million applications each year and less than 1% of applicants are successful.
Traditionally seen as a ticket to a plum job in the US, the appeal of Institutes of Technology (IIT) hasn’t been diminished by US President Donald Trump’s “hire American” policy – at least yet.
“It may impact engineering jobs for Indians in the US, but I know that global demand for IIT graduates will be sustained – in other countries too,” says Naman Narang, an 17-year-old student from Mumbai, who took the national test for admission In April.
He’s hopeful that, by the time he graduates in five years, “there might be another American president with revised policies.”
The mad rush to get engineering degrees is driven by the relatively high salaries graduates can expect to earn, as well as the potential to work overseas.
India produces nearly 1.6 million engineers from its more than 2,900 colleges every year, and the number of Indians issued H-1B visas, the entry ticket for many foreign workers into the US, went up from around 108,000 in 2014, to more than 126,000 in 2016, according to government data.
But Trump’s immigration crackdown has left many worrying that growth could be reversed, making the competition for the coveted visas even tighter.
Harder to get into than Harvard
Regardless of whether students harbor ambitions to move overseas, attending an IIT continues to be viewed as among the surest means of success, and getting in is incredibly competitive. According to Indian ed-tech portal Toppr.com, the 2014 acceptance rate at IITs was 0.7%, versus 5.8% at Harvard University and 6.7% at Yale.
Many students prepare up to four years for the three-hour entrance exam. Some start as early as Grade 6. Narang started two years ago in Grade 10.
On a typical day, he leaves for school at 6:30 a.m. and gets home at 10 p.m. After almost six hours of lectures, he’s hard at work in the library, with only a short break for dinner, followed by more revision before bed.
“Even a one-hour break feels very long,” said Drumil Trivedi, 18, who is also taking the exam this year in Mumbai. “The pressure is mounting, and constant practice is the best way to keep your confidence up.”
Admission to the IITs is the ultimate goal for many Indian families. Students are often pushed into engineering by their parents, regardless of aptitude or preference.
“It’s a society that is focused on making money and playing safe,” said Praveen Tyagi, director of PACE IIT & Medical, a JEE cram school. “The demand for engineers has been sustained around the world, and parents believe that this is a steady path to a high-paying job.”
The pressure to obtain this apparent golden ticket can be unrelenting. “I have seen students in pain, going through meltdowns, coming close to giving up,” Tyagi said.
Last month, an IIT-Delhi student attempted suicide. According to police, he couldn’t cope with engineering and said his parents forced him into it. The National Crime Records Bureau estimates that in India, a student commits suicide every hour.
In Kota, a town in Rajasthan famous for its high-pressure, high-performance tutoring centers for the JEE, over 60 students have killed themselves in the past six years.
Critics argue that the format of the JEE, which compresses years of preparation down to a single day’s exam, is the principal cause of the problem.
“It’s definitely unfair and extremely stressful to perform on that one day (exam day),” said Vipul Mehta of Eduhola, a Mumbai-based study-abroad consultancy firm.
Yet most Indian middle-class families prefer engineering over other professions, as children working abroad is a status symbol.
A different path
Most engineering graduates, however, don’t seek engineering jobs. According to Mehta, the IITs are known for nurturing not engineers but entrepreneurs, technocrats and troubleshooters.
Students typically veer toward IT, consulting, finance and general-management positions at multinational companies, consulting firms and prominent start-ups.
Brain drain continues unabated. It is estimated that an average 15-20% of IIT graduates move abroad for higher studies or work soon after graduation.
While the US is a primary destination, many graduates go to the UK, Singapore, China, Canada and Germany. Today, graduates are moving to developing economies where engineers are in demand, which will also help soften the blow dealt by Trump’s new visa policies.
“There will always be demand for this skill set, if not from the US, then elsewhere. Canada, for instance, is jumping on this,” Mehta said.