Let’s start with two claims:

  • The point of getting an “education” is to profit in life.

  • This profit can be looked either in terms of an enlargement of one’s academic abilities (mostly qualitative) or improvements in job opportunities (quantitative) or both.

Looking at our possible roles in society, one can argue, as my dear friend did, for human advancement in quality of life being a part of the goal of this “education”. But I’m not going to – it shall only lead to an infinite loss in this analysis.

Part I: Costs

Let’s start with some numbers.

For Day Scholars:

S. no. Name Cost - in Rupees (average)
1 College Fees 70,625 per year
2 Transportation Charges* 62 per day or 8370 per year
3 Food Costs** Negligible
4 Hostel Fees Hidden #
5 Basic Amenities/Toiletries Hidden #
  Total 78,995 per year

Let us assume that each year, I would deposit the same amount of money in a bank and get 8% interest. At the end of fourth year, I would have: Rs. 3,84,437

Note:

* I went to college an average of 15 days per month for a total of 9 months each year (December, June and July were off)

** I bought home-made cooked food in nicely packed tiffin boxes (thanks mom!)

Stationary cost was negligible as well and I re-sold the books I bought to a junior. They have been omitted as well.

# Hidden costs may be due to a lack of burden on the student in an Indian Family to pay for those while studying.

For Hostellers:

S. no. Name Cost - in Rupees (average)
1 College Fees 70,625 per year
2 Transportation Charges Negligible
3 Food Costs (Mess) 2100 per month
4 Hostel Fees 16000 per year
5 Basic Amenities & Toiletries 1000 per month
6 Additional Costs* 2500 per month
  Total 1,37,025

At 8% interest, the future value comes out at Rs. 6,66,846**

Note:

* Includes outside food bills because Mess Food can kill you.

Government Subsidies to the rescue (for now)

Of course, the total costs are pretty cheap when compared to how much Private Engineering Universities charge. For example, BITS Pilani charged a little over 3 lakhs per year for the financial year 2015-16. In the last few years, there has been a constant increase in the annual fees as well, with my college charging Rs. 91,000 for students admitted in the financial year (2015-16) – an increase of over 30%.

This is a trend seen across various Government Engineering Institutions in India. National Institute of Technology (NIT) Delhi, for example, charged Rs. 52440 per annum in the academic year 2013-14 and now charges Rs. 1,66,400 for the academic year 2016-17 - an increase of over 200%. A similar hike can be seen for other NITs. Recently the IITs were in the news as well for hiking their fees from Rs. 90,000 to Rs. 2,00,000 – a hike of 120%.

Why are engineering fees rising for government institutions? - One motive for the fee hike by the government is to reduce the subsidies it pays and let the General category students bear the cost. But let’s not get into the details.

The Big Fat Coaching Industry

One must also take into account the money spent in coaching institutes to prepare for AIEEE & IIT-JEE (now called JEE – Mains and JEE – Advanced). Depending on the institute, one may have to pay anywhere between Rs. 1 lakh to Rs. 2 lakhs for 2 years’ worth of classes, reading material and tests. Any minor deviation can be accommodated by the stationary and transportation charges.

Let’s appreciate these values as well, compounding them per annum for 5 years. That comes out to Rs. 1,47,000 to Rs. 2,93,000. I paid around Rs. 1,50,000 for coaching, whose future value comes out to be Rs. 2,20,000.

Summing up, I paid a little over 6 lakhs (2 years of coaching + 4 years of college). Well, most of it was paid by my father, apart from last year’s college fees.

Six lakhs: This is the cost of Engineering “education” I paid.


Part II: Returns

Any money spent in one’s “education” is assumed an investment.

What I get out of this investment:

1. A B.Tech. Degree that has certain characteristics:

  • It is accepted as a proof of competence by lazy Human Resource Department employees. Another tick in the requirements

  • Since my institution is an old one, its widespread recognition results in immediate respect in the society – which is pretty useful for my parents, at the very least.

  • I’m not sure about this point but the sub-IIT level recognition might also lead to improved opportunities provided by investors, CEOs etc. in India.

2. A job (on – campus placement)

To get an on-campus placement in an IT company, these are two contributions made. The first contribution is made by the college in terms of its Training & Placement Cell which works to get companies to come to campus.

The second contribution is made by you, the student. You are required to study four major subjects: Data Structures, Algorithms, Database Management Systems and Operating Systems – often abbreviated to DS, ADA, DBMS and OS. These four giants are considered sufficient for most IT companies.

You prepare for these subjects just like you prepare for IIT-JEE. You may depend on your professors to teach you (please don’t). You may join a job preparation institute that covers these courses. Or may you learn these concepts online (from sites such as GeeksForGeeks) and start a thing called competitive coding. Competitive Coding is essentially a sport for programmers. Sadly, the format of this sport is often a major chunk of the recruitment procedures of IT companies, as well.

So far, the highest package that student got from on-campus placement has been forty lakhs. I guess I’ll be able to secure a package between 6-10 lakhs but forty lakhs can be taken as the potential maximum return on my investment. This brings us to an interesting rule of being MNCs – divide colleges into multiple Tiers based on their recognition and provide differential treatment when it comes to annual packages or Cost to Company (CTC).

A Tier 1 Engineering institute student such as the IITs will usually get a higher salary for the same role in a company compared to a Tier 2 Engineering institute student studying in NITs and government state universities. This is one of the reasons why you are forced to prepare for the IITs: a higher return on your parent’s investment in your “education”.

The curse of being a Private Institute is that companies shall avoid coming to your campus. A major exception are Mass IT recruiters such as TCS, IBM, Infosys and Accenture – whose system is created to absorb the “talent” from Tier 2 government institutes and the best private institutes. But, ain’t nobody got time to explain that.

3. Another return on my investment has been an understanding of how the coaching industry and the Engineering colleges thrive.

This may not be useful for most, but I have a special interest in the field of Education. I can also call myself an undercover agent to expose the rottenness of these institutes, in order to sound dramatic. To be honest, this has mostly been an unintended consequence so let’s leave it at that.

4. Learning:

To estimate the value of the learning I received is a difficult process. Regardless of what method one would apply, I’m sure that it would be no more than two thousand rupees. Let me explain:

I know what topics an engineering student in my branch is taught. The quality of classroom learning has been obviously horseshit but at least I know what topics to study in future, in case I need to. On the other hand, I could merely have looked at the course syllabus instead of joining the college and complemented that with some exploration on Youtube, Reddit and so on. Also, this knowledge does not provide opportunities for me to directly profit. I’d have to spend months of my time un-learning and re-learning for each subject to be able to profit from it in terms of new projects or a better paying job. Thus, the value of this knowledge is negligible.

An argument is often made that the point of a college education at the under-graduate level is to give an introduction to the various fields of the branch you have chosen and form a foundation. That may be true but in my case the foundation is utterly ruined, beyond repair. I shall have to first destroy the old foundation and then build a new one, effectively resulting in a no profit situation as of now.

I also know what most job recruiters are looking for. Again, I could simply have searching this online. So, to be fair to the truly dedicated professors, the value of the learning I received from them is a full two thousand rupees.

Summing up, I now have a degree which suggests that I am qualified to be employed, I’ll soon have a job that would pay more than I invested if not forty lakhs per annum and I know what to study in case I want to improve the opportunities I have right now.

These are the returns on my investment.


Part III: Hidden Losses

Returning to the initial claims:

  • The point of getting an “education” is to profit in life.

  • This profit can be looked either in terms of an enlargement of one’s academic abilities (mostly qualitative) or improvements in job opportunities (quantitative) or both.

My Privilege:

For my particular scenario, I can safely say that I am at a better position to profit in life than I was when I was in class tenth – when it comes to improvements in job opportunities.

When it comes to enlargement on my academic abilities, I can safely say that the whole circus trip has been worthless.

As mentioned earlier, if I were to argue, as my dear friend did, for human advancement in quality of life being a part of the goal of this “education”, then I claimed it shall lead to infinite loss. This is because I am in no better shape to create anything that adds value to the world due to my college “education”. I don’t think I’m incapable of adding any value. But whatever value I can add to this world is in spite of my college, not because of it. The opportunity cost, if not infinite, is multi-fold as the damage that one faces daily to one’s intellectual abilities and personality in a typical Engineering Institute along with the loss of valuable years of prime physical and mental health cannot be underestimated.

I confess that this is a risky proposition to make without a possibility of an absolute proof. A comparative proof may be possible but will be quite difficult if we include one’s privilege and individual differences as factors. But, I will be happy if proven wrong.

I have had tremendous privilege and access to opportunities in my life as well. I have been raised in a family without cases of abuse and I have studied in one of the best schools in my city. The sheer number of interning and volunteering opportunities I have had, while not at par with some of the best performing peers I know, has been sufficiently high. This has resulted in the huge amount of soft-learning I have received on how to communicate effectively, build things and manage people.

In my particular scenario, access to these opportunities has been as a result of my school friends knowing, for instance, my love for working in the field of Education. None of these opportunities were a result of studying in the particular Engineering College I was in.

As stated earlier, the greatest loss I have faced is the loss of valuable years. Perhaps you can optimize for either time well spent or optimize for security by having a degree on your back. I accept that this is a rather impossible choice to make for a school student.

After all, what drives most of us if not fear?


Part IV: Alt-Engineering:

The doubt of whether one would be better off if they didn’t take the path I took is interesting. What follows is an exploration of some guidelines for an alternative journey should one choose not to get an Engineering Degree but rather learn from a select combination of online/offline resources.

One reason to write about the returns on my investment was to get some closure to the thoughts I’ve been grappling with. Another reason was to set up the following hypothetical question:

If I had 6 lakh rupees and I was back in Class 11th, how could I choose a path of greater profit than taking the path that leads to a B.Tech. Degree?

Knowing the exact amount can lead to frugal choices. We can also set up the two conditions that shall make this alternative path viable. First, it should lead to a higher profit. Second, it should be more economical.

Some of the below-mentioned guidelines cost just a monthly internet connection subscription. 4-8MBPS should be enough. Others might require buying some videos or books online or buying the monthly subscription for access to resources. Others might also include classroom lectures. Together, they will eat into a fraction of your budget of 6 lakhs (or more). The rest you can use as a buffer to experiment with other techniques and to travel to events such as Hackathons (more on this later).

This might not be valid for you:

India is a vast country and experiences while growing up can largely vary based on one’s socio-economic condition.

One required criterion is that the circumstances are not such that you have to be earning reasonably well by 22 years of age to support your family. It shall be favorable if your parents can take care of themselves financially for the rest of their life. Parental support is also vital, If not absolutely necessary. A scenario where there exists a communication gap with your parents – particularly about your dreams, might put you in hot water.

Another requirement is a fundamental belief in one’s ability to add value to the world. This is particularly important and can often supersede the previous requirement for its ability to overcome the financial restrictions in one’s life.

The guidelines are not an excuse for a person to procrastinate. It requires self-motivation and hard work that can lead to a stronger academic foundation than what a typical Indian Engineering institute provides.

A person’s personality is often fluid in our teens and early twenties and it may be foolish to attempt to state that only a particular personality type will be able to follow this path. The difficulty may vary but to simply state that one personality type is ineligible is an idea I shall not subscribe to.

Based on my experiences, I believe the following guidelines should help a bit and I hope it does. They are not supposed to be read as sermon. They are just tiny pieces of information based on one student’s experience and I am not responsible for any added significance you, the reader, might add on to them. If this article is useful for you, go online and make it a point to read other perspectives. The more you read, the more you’ll know. And the more information you have, the brighter your future!

Note: The reasons for following these guidelines must be your own personal philosophy in the idea of getting an education. So far I have mentioned the word education in quotes because I believe that the circus I was a part of wasn’t education at all.

Before you read further, ask yourself: What does it mean to learn something and why would you spent any amount of time learning anything?

Some Background:

These guidelines shall be most useful for students thinking of pursuing a degree in a computer field, and less so for core branches. While they can be modified to cover different core branches of Engineering, as is my hope, there are certain equipment costs that are difficult to manage. For computer related fields, all you need is a laptop and an internet connection for most operations. That is not the case with the core fields. A possible solution can be permission to use a university’s lab during/after college hours.

These guidelines are based on my observations of some of the best computer programmers in my social circle. Only one of them is a college drop out. The rest did pursue their engineering degree from some of the “best” colleges in India.

This is also not the road less travelled by. To ask a student to walk on a new path in an environment such as India is a terribly dangerous prospect. This is indeed a well-trodden path, the entrance of which is hidden from the outsiders.

When you see a person get a 60 lakh package from a college, as an outsider you would instantly over-estimate the college’s role in making that happen. These guidelines have helped students escape from the circus show and forge their own path.

The major difference lies is my insistence on not going to college but rather learning exclusively from online/offline courses. I say this to minimize the time you have to waste in classrooms, doing useless assignments or preparing for tests that are not very good at judging your learning. In case you want to follow these guidelines while pursuing an Engineering degree, remember that the most precious resource you waste in college has a negative impact on your potential.

Just imagine the beauty of having the freedom to learn what you want, when you want and where you want it.


Part V: Guidelines:

If you are thinking of not getting a B. Tech. degree, you are immediately at a disadvantage. Scoring high in a competitive exam is one proof of competence that recruiters look at. That is why they go recruit from the top colleges: the supposed crème de la crème. They are not going to evaluate the quality of your teachers, for they know that it is incredibly poor. They come because three or four years ago you performed in a competitive exam higher than your peers.

Not being in one of this institutions limits the potential exposure you will be getting to be in contact with a recruiter. It sometimes also limits the number of companies you can apply for; in case they have a strict policy to not hire anyone below a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

Thank the false gods for startups – fast moving entities willing to take risks whose hiring practices are biased towards skillset and not degrees.

In short, there are two major goals one must pursue:

  • Beating “engineers” cold - in skillset.

  • Mitigating the damage due to lack of exposure to recruiters.

I: Beating “engineers” cold - in skillset

Learning a programming language is vital if you want to work in a computer related field. High Schools usually have Python/C++/Java courses which do help a bit. But you shall need professional training.

Particularly in the US, coding boot-camps are a growing sensation where a person can become employable, and/or demand a higher salary after going through three to six months of training at a boot-camp. Some of these do exist in India was well.

Alternatively, there are institutes which college students in their third year go to get a foundation in the four major subjects that recruiters seek, for example, Coding Ninjas. If you are observant, you’ll notice that this is a typical school-tuition problem at a college level.

I have no personal recommendations to make for either. Whichever boot-camp or coding institute you decide to go to make sure that its results are tremendous. One heuristic to apply is to look for new and small programmes rather that large institutes such as the NIITs which are no better than colleges, in my opinion. The reason is that the small ones have a lot to lose in terms of reputation and profits if their first few batches do not get a great placement.

Talk to pass-outs of an institute and give due time to proper research before paying a penny. You have close to 6 lakhs to spend over the next few years and being frugal is absolutely important.

You can also learn all of this online, by doing a Nanodegree by Udacity, for example.

Another resource I have grown fond of is Packt Publishing.

P.S. Stay away from Ethical Hacking, Digital Marketing and SEO courses. As a rule of thumb, all of them are a scam.

But learning a programming language isn’t enough. The reason is that the aim of these institutes and boot-camps is to give people the practical knowledge to get employed fast. They are unable to offer a strong academic background as that is not something that is relevant to its clients.

Now, how would one go about learning the subjects that an Indian engineering student “learns” in a college? For a strong academic background in the field of Computer science, let’s simply learn from the best.

There are hundreds of courses available in all of above mentioned resources. One way to proceed is to take the syllabus for a Tier 1 engineering college in India (or abroad) and to try to match the subjects with the videos lectures. You can skip the subjects that do not interest you while taking on inter-disciplinary subjects that do.

As a rule, A MOOC that is offered by a university will be more academically strong whereas a company oriented video course shall make you practically more proficient. My suggestion is to mix and match with the percentage of theoretical and practical knowledge that works for you.

You can also be quite forward looking and grab a gold of the Job Descriptions of the dream companies that you want to work for. See what all skills they ask for. Learn those skills. Simple.

The ultimate form of learning is building new things. Build a web, mobile or desktop app. Find work on sites like Upwork or even intern with startups. When people are willing to pay you quite well for your work, you might have built a solid skillset.

II: Mitigating the damage due to lack of exposure to recruiters.

The second goal is to improve exposure to recruiters. It is a law of nature: companies are resistant to change. Many will ask you for a computer related degree as proof of competence. You might build a portfolio with your work, but some companies will simply say no. However, some online certification programs such as Udacity are picking up steam with employers. Your job is to really improve your exposure to recruiters who evaluate candidates on the basis of skillset, and not ALL the companies.

Linkedin helps out a bit with exposure. In case you are looking for a job, you can simply build a resume and apply online for jobs such as on Hirist as well.

Companies are so tired of poor quality of engineers that they organize hackathons just to find the right talent. Hackathons, like boot-camps are a huge sensation in the world and one of the quickest way to get noticed. Other ways are things such as the Google Summer of Code, Microsoft Events (Imagine Cup) and probably a few dozen more. The more you search online, the more opportunities you’ll know of.

If you work as a freelance or an intern, you can also talk to the company you are working with for opportunities they might have for a permanent job. I know of a few anecdotal examples that illustrate how you can profit more. One friend in particular, after learning Web Development for a year, was able to earn over a lakh in his two-month summer break. A couple of years later, he was able to secure a package of 26 lakhs from a major startup. All of this in spite of his college education, not because of it.

If you just want a high paying job, you’re covered if you have a better skillset than typical fourth year engineering graduates. But what if you really want to add value to the world?

Changing (a tiny part of) the World:

A major part of changing the world is research. This is often done in foreign universities and the Research & Development department of big companies with money to spare. If research is your cup of tea, you might be able to get a partial or full scholarship to one of the Ivy League universities if your computer expertise at the end of Class 12th is far superior than your peers. Wining IT Olympiads might also help improve exposure. Again, look out for the kind of competitions that foreign universities keep an eye out for and work on performing well in them.

The tiniest of effort will put you above the students running from school to coaching and back. But to win in an international event, you need to be superior in absolute skill-set when compared to the rest of the world, not just your classmates. Thank the false Gods for all the time in the world on your hands.

Being capable of adding value in this world is becoming increasingly important as the technology advancement is resulting into thousands of jobs becoming useless each year. For a scare lesson, watch this

Artificial Intelligence, Neural Networks, Robotics, Drones are some of the buzz-words you might have heard about. Do you know how significant our country’s contribution in these fields is? – Not significant at all.

A person with a solid skill-set in a computer related field has the potential to be at the edge of this technological curve and effectively ride out the damages automation will probably cause. More so, you may be able to find solutions to problems using technology that might make the world a safer, heathier or happier place.

You can do that while getting an Engineering degree as well, as many do. But the sheer waste of time and damage that it shall cause you is more likely to make you believe that you have no potential to contribute to your field or add any value to the world.

If that is not your aim and you would like to be conflict-averse: stick to a conventional path. To have a self-learning journey is hard, irrespective of which path you choose. But, so is everything else.


Summary

A person who is consistently focused on having an enriching learning experience will be able to find more opportunities than her/his peers. That’s an absolute I believe in.

To be honest, I don’t know if I would have been able to get rid of the itch of having a degree back when I was in school. Convincing my parents, well, hah! Never-mind. If you have read so far, congratulations! You now know more than I did a year ago, about getting an Engineering “education”.

Our lives can be measures as a set of choices. Each choice you make shall lead you towards your potential or away from it. Each choice is yours to make alone. Don’t let anyone else do it for you.

The most difficult thing to do, after all, is to think for yourself.