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“Try to get to the front of the line or jump the line”

Karan Khemka is a CEO strategic advisor, director and investor in education companies globally

A couple of years ago John Palfrey, Andover’s Head of School, addressed alumni including myself in Singapore – “It’s hard to manage parent’s expectations on university admission. Vanderbilt today is as selective as Columbia University was when you were at school 20 years ago”.

The number of “great education brands” is stagnant while demand has increased many times over

John was highlighting one of the great choke points in the world economy. 20 years ago the daily production of Mercedes Benz was 2,000 units, one-fourth of the 8,000 units they produced each day in 2019. Luxury cars, handbags, watches are all made in higher volumes today than ever before.

The number of “great education brands” is stagnant while demand has increased many times over and with increasing affluence in emerging markets, there is no sign of this stopping.

If you are an “international student” it gets worse – the head of admissions at an Ivy League university told me “If we force ranked all our applicants 75% of top applicants would be from outside the United States. In fact, our cohort can be on 20% international which means it is three to four times as hard for a non-US applicant to get admitted.”

This choke point is what drives parents to bribe their children into top universities and it is placing an incredible amount of pressure on students. For mid-tier universities, this creates an opportunity to re-position themselves as elite brands addressing the supply side of the equation.

If only they knew how. For example, I don’t think Vanderbilt has the standing today that Columbia had 20 years ago despite their quality and current levels of selectivity.

And for students – they have a choice. Try to get to the front of the line or jump the line. I am in favour of the latter as it encourages students to relax and be themselves. There was a kid at Andover who wanted to get into Brown University and he clearly did not have the grades. For his application essay, he wrote something, printed it out, burnt it, put the ashes in a zip-lock plastic bag with a label that read “This is my essay. I hated it.”

He got in.

• Karan Khemka was partner and head of the international education practice at Parthenon-EY for 16 years and now serves on boards at global education companies.

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