It is that time of the year when college admission results are rolling in, and names like Harvard and Yale, USC and NYU are popping up in conversations—as in “my son is going to Columbia" or “my daughter is going to Wharton"—and it got me thinking that American colleges are the rising luxury brands in India. They come at a hefty price tag—$200,000 (around Rs93 lakh) for a basic four-year undergraduate programme (postgraduate programme costs vary depending on what you do—the popular two-year MBA, for instance, tots up in the region of $120,000+). We bought 103,260 American college seats last year, making Indians the largest international student group entering the US in 2008-09. Do some back-of-the-envelope math and as a nation we committed $15 billion to send our bachchas to America. Forget Louis Vuitton bags, Rolex watches and Mont Blanc pens—for that matter, forget bigger-ticket Mercedes and BMWs—American education is the luxury product that Indians are blowing serious dollars on.

Top draw: US schools such as Columbia University drew 103,260 Indians last year. Bloomberg

So I caught up with a few mums to understand what makes them put their 17-year-olds on a plane with a hug and a prayer and a dent in the bank balance. The answer is pretty simple: quantity and quality. Quantity, of course, refers to the huge number of students applying for a very limited number of “good" college seats in India, and the whole get-your-child-into-college routine reaching such absurd levels that kids rejected by St Stephen’s in Delhi are welcomed by Stanford in California. Quality refers to the fact that a Stanford education is on a totally different planet compared to what even St Stephen’s— or most top-notch Indian colleges, the venerable IITs included—can offer. And if Stanford or big brand Ivy League institutions are out of junior’s reach, there are hundreds of other American colleges that will provide him with an excellent education. The upshot: If you can rustle up the dough—substantial as it might be—you take junior out of the great Indian college rat race and get him a top quality education at an American university instead.

If you buy into the 3 Idiots thesis that education is about finding your passion as against following the crowd, it is about focusing on real learning as against a bloody-minded focus on marks and grades, it is about a true awakening of the mind as against mindless learning by rote…then that’s exactly what the American colleges offer. Join a liberal arts programme and you spend the first two years exploring and experimenting with a variety of courses till you find what turns you on enough to major in it. The result is that kids who go in thinking they want to become physicists discover that their real passion is English literature, and those who went in to study history end up falling in love with economics. You have two loves? No problem, do a double major, as in neurosciences and psychology, or economics and international relations. Your heart pulls in two opposite directions? No sweat, weird combos are perfectly acceptable, as in a double major in economics and drama, equipping you for a career on Wall Street and Broadway. In Indian colleges, there is little flex—you shoot the “subject" bullet on Day 1 and stick to it for the next four years (and often for the rest of your life) even if you discover you have made a horrible mistake.

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The mums tell me that their kids are totally transformed by the educational experience in the US. You send in your over-protected, chauffeur-driven, maid-serviced, classes-bunking, late-for-everything brat (who can’t load a washing machine if his life depended on it) and the young man/woman who comes back four years later is a confident world citizen—concerned, engaged, well-spoken, personable, open-minded, who can not only load a washing machine but also put together a well-argued paper, who wants to save the world, and who, believe it or not, has some leadership skills that you can actually see. This transformation from coddled home bunny to budding international leader happens thanks to the amazingly rich academic resources that surround him.

Go on a tour of a few of these colleges and it is like being in a candy store of learning. Beautiful campuses, stunning old buildings steeped in history, excellent professors (including Nobel laureates who still teach), path-breaking research activity that you might be able to assist in, a mouth-watering range of courses to choose from, and an extraordinary variety of extracurricular activities to sharpen your teeth on. Compare this to iffy-quality teachers (57% of Indian college teachers don’t have a master’s/PhD degree), teacher-less classes (25% of teaching positions in Indian colleges are vacant), outdated research facilities, and perhaps the most damaging aspect—a chalta hai (anything goes) environment that our youngsters come to accept as the norm.

The send-junior-abroad trend is now percolating down the income ladder. The money involved is enormous and what amazes me is that a growing number of middle-class families are stretching themselves financially (sometimes close to breaking point, like we do for daughters’ weddings) to buy a foreign education. American colleges aside, Indians are dispatching their kids to the UK, Australia, Singapore and other countries in large numbers. Sure, some get scholarships and other forms of financial assistance, but most pay full fare. Foreign universities are lining up to open colleges in India, but we won’t let them in (contrast this with China, which has frantically built foreign partnerships, and had 700 foreign academic programmes operating in 2006). In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of Indian families are “importing" education from these same colleges. And paying a king’s ransom to give junior a royal chance at life.

Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair with Luxury. Write to her at