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In India, Some Students With Low Test Scores Can Buy Their Way Into College


Maybe you remember the Varsity Blues scandal a few months ago. This was when a bunch of parents paid money to get their kids into top U.S. universities. Something similar is happening in India, too, but the outcome is different there. NPR's Lauren Frayer has been visiting a college campus in Chennai, and she's got this story.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It's a gorgeous campus - like, the palm trees and...


FRAYER: I feel like it looks like Beverly Hills or...

BHANSALI: It's a 250-acre campus around.

FRAYER: Tinak Bhansali is an 18-year-old freshman at SRM, one of India's elite engineering colleges. This was his dream school, but he didn't do well on the entrance exam.

BHANSALI: I didn't prepare that well.

FRAYER: Why didn't you prepare?

BHANSALI: I like sports. I didn't like studies.

FRAYER: He wanted to study computer science here, but he got rejected. So his parents found another way. They paid his way in.

BHANSALI: There was my father's friend, who was in contact with the dean. And we had to pay a bit more amount.

FRAYER: And not just a bit - they actually paid more than double tuition. His parents had to take out a bank loan.

BHANSALI: I was happy and sad in both ways, that I was not able to get in, but happy that my parents, they love me.

FRAYER: Do you feel a bit of pressure on your shoulders?

BHANSALI: Just like - I will do good - better than before.

FRAYER: The reason Tinak is willing to tell me all this is that what his family did is perfectly legal in India. It's called management quota. A certain number of spots in the freshman class, usually about 15%, are reserved for the college's management to allocate at its discretion, hence the name management quota. In theory, it could mean awarding seats to underprivileged students. But in practice, it means selling them. And this happens at most private engineering and medical schools across India.

S S MANTHA: And they want to provide quality, so they want a little extra money from somewhere.

FRAYER: S.S. Mantha used to oversee all of India's technical colleges. He says that unlike the Varsity Blues scandal, where some of the illicit payments went to sports coaches, in India, the money goes straight to the school.

MANTHA: So they can start more courses, they can build better laboratories, they can probably bring foreign faculty.

FRAYER: But there is room for corruption. Prices vary, and there's a growing army of middlemen.


NIRAJ MISHRA: This is their courses, their state-of-the-art facilities and all.

FRAYER: Niraj Mishra shuffles through glossy brochures. He's an education consultant who helps families buy spots at these schools.

MISHRA: What we are doing, we are a bridge. We are acting as a bridge between college and the parent. It's a social work also.

FRAYER: He's a hefty man adorned with gold jewelry. Across his desk is Paramhans Kumar, a desperate father trying to get his youngest son into a top engineering school.

PARAMHANS KUMAR: All parents, they need - they want their child to get admission in prestigious campuses and all. But if the child is not in that caliber...

FRAYER: Then there's a fallback option. Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. Vibhuti Patel studies the economics of education.

VIBHUTI PATEL: I think it is going to affect the overall quality of education. No? And it will be very demoralizing for the people who are disciplined, genuine, hardworking.

FRAYER: Patel says this is part of a wider trend. India's economy has been booming; more youth can afford college. New schools are opening every day, and existing ones are getting more selective. But as schools try to profit from this boom, something is getting lost, Patel says.

PATEL: There is no vision. There is no commitment to preparing the citizens of tomorrow. They'll see it as a commerce.

FRAYER: Back on the sprawling SRM campus, Tinak, the freshman, says he's confident that students like him with average test scores but affluent parents will always find their way.

BHANSALI: Because in India, it's obvious we will get admission in management quote, if not seven, then 10, 12...

FRAYER: He's talking about the extra thousands of dollars some families are ready to pay to get into elite colleges in India.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Chennai.

(SOUNDBITE OF RJD2'S "NO GIMMICKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.