A group of entrepreneurs has set up India's first pure liberal arts college, Ashoka University, on the outskirts of Delhi promising an Ivy League education at a fraction of the cost, and it could be a game changer for a nation obsessed with producing engineers and doctors.
The decision to join the opening batch of Ashoka University this August was hardly agonizing for 18-year-old aspiring robotics engineer Vijay Lingam. The high school graduate from Hyderabad gave up a coveted scholarship to study computer science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in the U.S. and decided not to apply to India's premier engineering colleges either.
"Indian engineering colleges don't give you enough flexibility… for instance, you cannot study computer science and economics. But at Ashoka I can, and there's not much difference between Ashoka's curriculum and CMU's," Lingam told CNBC.
Finances were also behind Lingam's decision. Even with a 50 percent scholarship to CMU, the four-year program would have cost around $130,000. A four-year undergraduate program at Ashoka costs about $35,000; Lingam was given a full scholarship, which made the decision even easier.
Lingam is exactly the kind of student that Ashoka's founders are after. They expect 350 undergrad students for Ashoka's opening batch and aim to attract some of the 800,000 Indian students that spend $2 billion year studying abroad according to Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India estimates. Thus far it has received around 3,000 applicants and made 200 offers.
Faculty and founders
The biggest selling point is Ashoka's faculty, according to university counselor Amrita Dass: "Teachers make a huge difference… while many private institutions offer great infrastructure, the teaching quality leaves much to be desired."
Ashoka has attracted top faculty from overseas. Madhavi Menon, a PhD in English from Tufts University and a professor of English at Ashoka, for instance, gave up her job as a professor at American University in Washington to join Ashoka.