There is a cave dweller living in my host family. Occasionally the figure emerges from his lair for water and food, but on the whole the only evidence of his presence is the frequent, echoing sound of book pages being turned in his room. The cave dweller, my Indian host brother, has been preparing to take the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for the past two years; the sole determining factor for admission to India’s premier engineering institute. I counted at least 23 textbooks on calculus, physics, biology and chemistry from which he is studying. His 12 to 15 hours a day study regimen makes my MCAT preparation look like child’s play. Should he beat the impossible 2 percent IIT admission rate and have his hard work pay off, he will find a privileged and prestigious career on the other end. Both literally and figuratively, my host brother is looking to become a part of the 1 percent.
His educational trajectory is not unlike my own. Both of us grew up in cement forests. He attended a private school. I attended a magnet school that paid extra attention to its students. My parents encouraged me to apply to schools that were a good fit and not to be discouraged by dollar signs. My host brother is similarly undeterred by his $200 (10,000 rupees) IIT-JEE registration fee. To say my host brother’s path to IIT has been a cakewalk is obviously a gross exaggeration, but both of us have benefited from the aforementioned circumstances. In my classes here in Udaipur the concept of Urban-Rural divide continues to come up. Some 60 percent of India’s population lives in rural areas. A purported 40 percent live on less than $1.25 a day. It all begs the question—without parents familiar with the education system, without quality schoolteachers and without economic security, what is the likelihood of reaching that 2 percent?
In “Examining the Structure of Opportunity and Social Mobility in India: Who Becomes an Engineer?” Duke Professor A. Krishna asks that very question. How likely are smart, talented rural, young adults to make their way to gateway institutions? Despite India’s growing economy, promising engineering sector and at least 1600 Indian engineering institutions of varying caliber, the answer, it seems, is not likely. And for IIT, it is statistically 0 percent. Less than one quarter of students at any engineering school completed the final stage of school from a rural school. For individuals classified as the rural poor, 1.6 percent received entry to a lower-ranked institution and statistically 0 percent was admitted to the top four colleges.
During a Global Semester Abroad class lecture, an NGO activist remarked that India creates the most beautiful policy and the worst implementation. Perhaps most beautiful is India’s Constitution, particularly their charter of fundamental rights. The Right to Education Act added the right to education to the charter in 2010. It gives educational entitlement to all students from 6 to 14 years of age and requires private schools to reserve a quarter of their seats for marginalized students. From the engineering statistics on poor rural students, it is clear that India has much work to be done toward better implementation of its eighth right.
What about the red, white and blue? In the most recent State of the Union address, President Obama challenged us to think of an America “that leads the world in educating its people” and attracts high tech manufacturing jobs. He referenced the post-World War II period and the GI Bill as a time when this America existed.
I would like to imagine this America with him, but at present it seems we are moving farther from it, not closer to it. Most concerning is that as states tighten their belts, they set their sights on tuition increases and slashes in teaching salaries. Recently, the UNC system recommended 8.8 percent tuition increases amid loud student protest. Education is a key factor toward upward social mobility, and moves like these are counterproductive to educational equality and access. Immediately after World War II was a time when millions of men and women were given access to free education. It was a time when our country invested in our youth. With upcoming state and federal elections, education should be right up with economy as our top voting priority because it begets economy. We may not have the right to education written in our federal constitution, but it is engraved into the disappearing American dream.
Kristen Lee is a Trinity junior who is spending the Spring in Udaipur, India and Beijing, China through the Duke Global Semester Abroad Program. Her column normally runs every other Monday.