Are rich kids taking advantage of affirmative action in India?

The New York Times has a piece today critical of India’s version of affirmative action, known as reservations, which may help wealthy students take slots meant for the disadvantaged. But a new study suggests the opposite.

"The program in India is a vast system of political patronage that increasingly works to reward the powerful rather than uplift those in need," Gardiner Harris writes

India’s reservations system sets aside a certain number of seats in public institutions of higher education—which tend to be the highest quality, most competitive, and cheapest options there—for members of so-called “backwards” castes and tribes. It is a widely-held belief in India that the system ends up helping members of those castes and tribes who might not actually need it (known as the “creamy layer”), leaving the poorest members of society out of luck when it comes to college admission.

It’s a similar argument to the one made by those who oppose race-based affirmative action in the United States.

Harris does not cite statistics showing that more-affluent individuals are helped by the reservations system than low-income individuals, however, probably because there may not be much data out there. But there is some. A small-scale study published this year found that quotas for backwards castes and tribes at one elite engineering school “effectively target minority students who are poorer than the average displaced non-minority student.”

The study isn’t an endorsement of the policy. Its authors, Veronica Robles and Kala Krishna, of Pennsylvania State University, also found that students who benefited from quotas fell behind academically. At a recent panel discussion at the Brookings Institution, Krishna said her findings didn’t mean quotas should be ended, but suggested they should push institutions to do more to help disadvantaged students succeed.

Affirmative Action, and then what?

Affirmative action – an idea that has sputtered and nearly died in the United States, some would argue – is still a major strategy for lifting up India’s most disadvantaged groups. In India, reservations, as affirmative action is known, are much more rigid than affirmative action policies ever were in the United States. As in America, they are hugely controversial. More well-to-do students complain about losing seats in colleges and universities to less qualified students.

But a new book out by R. Govinda, vice chancellor of India’s National University of Educational Planning and Administration, suggests that even India’s aggressive reservations policies aren’t enough, something that U.S. colleges and universities have also realized. Students brought into schools through affirmative action campaigns and outreach efforts often feel excluded once they’re in schools. Oftentimes, they drop out because they are not prepared, or because they face discrimination.

Access, that is, can only be the first step. Just as critical is keeping disadvantaged students in school (whether it’s high school or college) once they enroll. The solution, Govinda argues, is teachers – not so different from what U.S. experts have also concluded. -Sarah Garland