Education

A question of access

Give them the access to the education and support that their more privileged counterparts already have.   | Photo Credit: S. S. KUMAR

It is well known that, in India, a student’s ability to crack competitive exams disproportionately affects their access to the best colleges and the most sought-after jobs in the country.

Students from low-income backgrounds are at a disadvantage from the start. Challenging home environments, under-resourced schools, the lack of funds to enroll in coaching institutes and the absence of mentors who can guide them all play a role. A failure to address these challenges ensures that inequity and lack of representation will persist, inhibiting the development and economic growth of India.

An undergraduate degree leads to a more than four-fold increase in daily wages for rural students. STEM undergraduates are twice as employable as non-STEM undergraduates in well-compensated professional jobs. Admission into the top 10% elite STEM colleges leads to a 10-fold increase in wages.

Strong foundation required

There are over 500,000 seats in premium government-subsidised STEM undergraduate programmes each year. National entrance tests like IIT-JEE and NEET act as gatekeepers to admission into these colleges. These are among the most challenging and competitive exams in the world and require a strong foundation in advanced Math and Science and are naturally biased towards students who can afford expensive test-preparation and premium private schools.

In addition to academic tutoring, guidance and non-academic support systems are critical to helping students cope with the over 30 hours a week of additional preparation that these exams demand.

It is critical that India’s most marginalised are enabled to realise their full potential, and are represented in the leadership of India’s technology, professional services and research sectors. Special attention should be given to gifted students who live in every corner of the country by giving them access to the education and support that their more privileged counterparts already have in their homes, schools and communities.

Part of this challenge was addressed in 1985, by setting up the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas (JNVs), a system of central schools for talented students predominantly from rural areas in India. Run by the Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti, New Delhi, an autonomous organisation under the Department of School Education and Literacy, these residential schools located in almost every district in the country provide a high-quality education to the 1% of students who clear the entrance exams in each district to gain admission into these schools.

But this is not enough. We need more such schools. The awareness and exposure provided to more affluent students simply by virtue of their environments needs to be replicated in schools such as the JNVs. Programmes that prepare young students for the competitive world outside, including access to mentors, scholarships, career counselling and rigorous academic programs provide the necessary support to propel them into this world.

The writer is the Executive Trustee, Avanti Fellows

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 4:36:07 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/what-needs-to-be-done-to-help-students-from-low-income-families-break-through-the-competitive-exams/article32989608.ece

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