A colleague of mine, a university professor here in the U.S. who is originally from India, told me recently about a program he is involved with back in his native state in India. Throughout the state, which has a population of about 50 million, in every town and village the top one percent of kids are identified by academic achievement. These kids become eligible for a program in which the state government pays for their college education.
One thing you might note right away about this plan is that there will be a huge disparity between the top one percent in a major town and the top one percent in a poor rural village. In the latter, even the best and the brightest may be practically illiterate. If you were simply to put all the kids in the same classroom, the ones from the richer areas would vastly outperform their counterparts from the impoverished countryside.
And so the plan contains the following provisions: If you fail your first year of college under the plan, you get to take it over, and the government will continue to pay. If it takes you seven years to finish college under the plan, the government will still pay. Also, after you graduate, the government will reimburse itself by automatically deducting a certain percentage from whatever job you take, for a certain number of years. But here’s the kicker: If you don’t get a job after you graduate – for whatever reason – there is no penalty. None whatsoever. The government simply swallows the loss.
My colleague reports that the plan is quite successful. Not only are the top one percent of students thriving in the program, but a number of top students selected from impoverished and relatively illiterate regions are making it through college as well, gradually gaining the skills they need as they go – albeit more slowly than the students from more well-off backgrounds. And the great majority of the students who graduate go on to well paying jobs.
It’s clear what the state is doing here. This program is not being done as some sort of favor for these kids. This is an act of pure self-interest on the part of the state. Find the students with the best natural ability, structure things so that the debilitating effects of even the most enormous economic disparity can be overcome over time, and do it all in such a way that there is no risk to the student – ie: no reason not to enroll in the program.
What you end up with is a sieve to discover your very best natural talents, and to make sure that as many as possible of those talents will be directed toward improving the state’s economy. If you end up with a few bad eggs along the way, that’s an acceptable level of loss, given the return on investment to the state’s economy coming from those students who thrive under the program and become financially successful.
What struck me when I heard about this plan was that (1) it’s brilliant, and that (2) it would never be tolerated in the U.S. Why is that? Because it would make people uncomfortable – the idea that somebody might be getting something for nothing. The idea that you might pay for a student’s education on the basis of pure potential, and then not punish that student in any way if they do not succeed, would be anathema in our society.
And the irony is that the real beneficiary of such a program is not the student, but rather the state – ie: everybody else. A program such as this is an engine for success precisely because it aligns with the state’s own enlightened self-interest. Find potential engines of the economy, nurture them and help them to reach their full potential. Your state will become richer and more competitive within the global marketplace.