When Tinak Bhansali arrived for freshman orientation last month at the SRM Institute of Science and Technology, one of India's elite engineering schools, he was nervous and excited. It was his first time away from his hometown, New Delhi. This was his dream school — a bucolic 250-acre campus in southern India, with palm trees, sprawling stucco buildings and cricket fields.
Even before classes began, Bhansali, 18, didn't want to keep any secrets from his new friends. So he told them the truth: He didn't have the grades to be there. His parents had bought him a seat in the freshman class.
"In the auditorium, I brought it up. I told them I paid this, because I didn't get in on my own," Bhansali recalls, with those nervous first few weeks of school now behind him. "I wanted to tell them myself. Otherwise there may be problems, or gossip."
Bhansali came clean to his friends because he knew his family would not get in trouble.
Unlike in the U.S. — where a scandal erupted when it came to light that parents paid millions of dollars, in some cases, to secure places for their children in top U.S. universities — what Bhansali's family did is perfectly acceptable, and common, in India. It happens under a system called "management quota."
Admission for those who pay more
At most of India's private engineering and medical schools, a certain number of spots in the freshman class — usually about 15% — are reserved for the college's management to allocate at its discretion. (Most public universities do not use the management quota system.) In theory, that could mean awarding seats to underprivileged students. But in practice, it usually means selling those seats.
"To build quality, money is important," says S.S. Mantha, an emeritus professor of robotics at the Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute in Mumbai. From 2012 to 2015, Mantha chaired the All India Council for Technical Education, a government agency that oversees India's technical colleges.
In the U.S. "Varsity Blues" scandal, some of the parents' illicit payments went to sports coaches. But in India, Mantha says, the money parents pay goes straight to the schools.
"So they can start more courses. They can build better laboratories," he explains. "They can probably bring foreign faculty."
To some, it looks like corruption. Prices vary from student to student, often agreed upon in private meetings between parents and college administrators — sometimes with the help of education consultants.
In India, families often hire such consultants to help them navigate this process. In the Varsity Blues scandal, the consultants have been accused of fabricating athletic and academic credentials and taking bribes for it. In India, consultants charge fees for their services but have not been accused of wrongdoing.
Average test scores, affluent parents
Indian college admissions rely heavily on standardized tests. Students who want to study engineering or medicine — two of the most popular majors — sit for multiple-choice exams, which largely determine their future. Elite colleges and universities accept a small fraction of top performers. Every year, the cutoff test score required to get in varies, depending on the competition.
Bhansali's test score fell short of what he needed to get into the computer science program at SRM's flagship campus near Chennai.
"I didn't prepare that well. I liked sports. I didn't like studies," Bhansali says with a shrug. "I was on the school cricket team, and I was more into cricket than my studies."
But his father had a friend who knew the college dean. They arranged a meeting and negotiated a price. The Bhansali family agreed to pay more than double tuition — in a lump sum plus annual installments — to secure Tinak a spot in the computer science program.
Annual tuition for most undergraduate majors at SRM costs 250,000 rupees, about $3,630. Bhansali says his family made an initial payment of 700,000 rupees, about $10,165, and pledged to pay a higher annual tuition of 350,000 rupees, about $5,080, for the next four years.
"Happy that my parents love me so much"
Even though the management quota system is legal, Indian courts have scrutinized the manner in which money is paid — whether it's in a lump sum or annual supplements to regular tuition, or both, as in Bhansali's case — as well as exactly where the money is directed, to a particular administrator, program or the university overall.
Lump sums like the one the Bhansalis paid are sometimes called "capitation fees," and in 1992, India's Supreme Court outlawed them. But since 2002, the high court has issued additional rulings allowing private institutions to charge extra fees, provided that they go directly to the school and not to individual administrators. The practice remains widespread.
Three years ago, SRM's chancellor, T.R. Pachamuthu, was arrested for allegedly accepting capitation fees from medical students. But the state's high court dropped the case after the school reimbursed families. Pachamuthu remains the school's chancellor, but has changed his surname to Paarivendhar. A wealthy businessman with assets exceeding $14 million, he was elected to India's Parliament in the spring.
As for Bhansali, his parents had to take out a bank loan to afford the extra tuition.
"I was happy and sad both — that I was not able to get in, but happy that my parents love me so much," he says.
He says he feels a bit of pressure to get better grades than he did in high school.
"A bridge between college and parent"
On the second floor of an office building above an industrial workshop, Niraj Mishra receives a steady stream of desperate parents from all over India. He greets them with glossy brochures and videos of sprawling campuses. Mishra, 28, is an education consultant who helps parents buy seats at elite colleges through management quotas, if their children cannot win admission on merit.
"We are acting as a bridge between college and parent. It's social work," says Mishra, a hefty man wearing several gold rings.
He doesn't want to disclose his client list. Management quota can be a sensitive topic, he says.
"It's a confidential matter. Nobody wants to disclose it," Mishra says. "Management quota means you did well, but you need a bit of a jack — like a car that needs jacking up. Our help is like a jack."
Across the desk from Mishra on the day NPR visited was Paramhans Kumar, 47, an architect from New Delhi, who is desperate to get his youngest son into a top engineering school.
"We Indians, our culture is such that we are for our family! All parents, they need — they want — their child to get admission into prestigious campuses," Kumar says, with emotion.
"But if the child is not of that caliber ..." Kumar trails off, shaking his head.
Then the management quota system can be a fallback option.
A growing industry
India's economy has been booming and so has its population. With 1.3 billion people, India is expected to soon exceed China as the world's most populous country. Nearly 45% of the population is under age 24.
More Indian youth can afford to go to college than ever before, and new universities are opening just about every day. India has more than 40,000 colleges and universities – nearly 10 times as many as the United States does. Elite institutions are getting more selective. Increasingly, families are hiring agents to help them navigate the system and improve their children's chances of admission to the colleges they want.
By 2025, India's higher education industry is expected to be worth about $35 billion.
Education consultants require no professional certification — only a deep address book of contacts at universities. They are networkers.
"Suppose, in your first year on the job, you get two candidates — and then their friends come to you. It's a chain," says Yash Mehrotra, 23, who worked as an education consultant part time to put himself through engineering school.
Mehrotra says education consultants typically charge anywhere from 5,000 rupees (about $72) to 500,000 rupees (about $7,200) per student, depending on how rich — and how desperate — the families appear.
Mehrotra eventually left the industry after a few years. He says he felt like he was exploiting people. He's now a graduate student in Australia.
"It's a very lucrative business, like real estate. You flip undervalued properties. In this market, you pick the candidate whose results are screwed up and whose parents are rich. That's how you identify people," Mehrotra says. "How do you justify it? You say to yourself, 'I don't smuggle drugs or anything.' In my head, I still helped those people."
"The power of money"
Once they're in, management quota students are held to the same academic standards as everyone else, and pass rates can be as low as 30%, Mantha says. The ethics code at SRM, the institute Bhansali attends, requires teachers to treat students "impartially," regardless of their social or economic background.
But ultimately, the management quota system prioritizes rich students over poor ones.
"It's basically the power of money," says Vibhuti Patel, who studies the economics of education at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. "It's very demoralizing and gives a wrong message, that people who have money — they are going to thrive. It's a 'might is right' kind of a neo-liberal logic."
Patel says this is part of a wider trend of commercialization of higher education in India. SRM is part of a conglomerate that also has business holdings in transport, media, energy and technology — and it's not alone. Many private higher education institutions run more like businesses than places of learning, Patel says.
"There is no vision. There is no commitment to preparing the citizens of tomorrow," she says. "They see it as commerce."
Mehrotra, the former consultant, says the overall quality of education is hurt when 15% of students in the classroom may not have achieved sufficiently high test scores to get there in the first place. They bring down the standards and may have difficulty finding jobs after graduation, he says.
Back on the lush SRM campus, Bhansali, now a few weeks into his freshman year, reflects on his circumstances.
"I was sure I would get here. I dreamed about this university, and I didn't have a Plan B," Bhansali says. "I just needed this."
He's confident that students like him — with average test scores and affluent parents — will always find their way.