Sunday, September 03, 2017

Tamil Nadu's Upper Funnel Education strategy and why its brilliant

Tamil Nadu has one of the best education strategies in the country. Let me start with an analogy that will help you appreciate this.

Imagine you are an e-commerce website owner. You have a webpage (like or that allows people to visit the webpage, prospect products, maybe add-to-cart and eventually buy. Think of your webpage as a funnel. The top of the funnel is people visiting the webpage. Mid-funnel is people prospecting products. Bottom funnel is people doing "Add-to-Cart". You have couple of important strategy options for digital marketing this webpage. Strategy 1: You adopt an upper funnel strategy. Your digital marketing efforts drives as much of the population to simply visit your webpage. It is prospected by many, and then a small subset will add-to-cart and a subset of that will complete purchase. Strategy 2: You adopt a bottom-funnel strategy. Your digital marketing efforts specifically targets people who are more likely to "add-to-cart". In effect - you only want those people who will take the "add-to-cart" action to visit your webpage. The traffic coming to your webpage is much lower, but those who come will most likely convert.

People pick from these two strategies based on their constraints and priorities. If you want to keep your server capacity cost low - you pick strategy 2; if you want brand awareness of your webpage to be high - you pick strategy 1.  Here is the key thing - the definition of traffic quality - depends on what you think of success. Strategy 1 could define quality as (number of people who know about my webpage)/(total population). This strategy focuses on more people being exposed to your webpage so that they have a habit of visiting when the need arises. Strategy 2 defines quality as (people who actually purchase)/(people who visit my webpage). There is no consistent definition of quality. It depends on what you, as the owner of the web page, want to do. It is dangerous to evaluate one strategy with metrics used by another strategy.

Tamil Nadu has an upper funnel strategy for college education. It wants as much of the population to either (a) get exposed to college education or (b) pass college and get exposed to professional career. It does not specifically optimize or even care about how many people eventually convert to great jobs in the end. It wants to make people going to college a habit, passing college a natural thing and hopes that this virtuous cycle habit formation leads to both direct and indirect positive effects. The definition of quality is more social - "what % of population get exposure to college education". Thats why it has a 12th pass % of 92%. Karnataka has a 12th pass % of 52%. It is adopting lower funnel optimization. Its definition of quality is (people who get jobs)/(people who get to college). Therefore, it is okay with a large chunk of its population not experiencing college or a professional career. While this is horrible for Karnataka's population, thats the state's strategy.

Tamil Nadu has consciously made passing 12th std easy, consciously allowed liberal centums and high marks in Math, Physics, Chemistry, Biology. It optimizes to put as many people in a position of applying to college. BITS, RECs, Delhi Colleges, and top colleges in other states have relied on 12th marks as a basis for admission. To help its students get into these non-TN colleges - Tamil Nadu has ensured that its students stand the best chance relative to students from other states. In parallel and quite obviously, it has increased its own server capacity in terms of number of colleges within TN to ensure the infrastructure support for its strategy. Now voila! - Magic. TN has not only pumped in its students into its own rapidly growing list of colleges but also into any available seat in non-TN colleges. Think of the virtuous cycle effects here. When BITS switched to normalization (which is (your mark)/(your state first mark)) - Tamil Nadu increased the "if you have to be above 90% its better that you be 96%" density to counter that strategy. It is a deliberate strategy to give its students the best chance everywhere. It has had flagrant success in exposing students to college education and embarrassing defeats to those exposed. But it has made sure getting to and completing college is as automatic a habit as brushing your teeth. It is quite a stunning feat. And it has taken all castes along in this journey - dalits, brahmins, thevars, MBCs, OBCs - the whole kitchen sink. Everybody has prospered. No one has been left behind. The country did not wise up to it until now. So we have NEET - a competitive move from other states to shut us down. Tamil Nadu's counter should have been "Fair enough. Bring it on". What it doesn't need now is a ill-informed intra-state caste war. That will only make it weaker. What it needs is a new game plan.

To conclude. In a philosophical decision of "Should I pass a person who is only semi-likely to succeed"  or "Should I fail a person who is semi likely to succeed" - Tamil Nadu has reduced false negatives (type II errors) and increased false positives (type I errors). It is morally and ethically the right strategy from a social justice point of view. This fantastic strategy has caused (a) a state with abnormally high self-esteem where almost all people have college degrees and most have professional degrees (b) the false positives - i.e. people who fail to secure professional jobs still be useful to society by finding other ways to survive as a college graduate and (c) a generation of highly valuable "graduate educated" parents to the next batch of TN children entering school. Lastly, it has allowed me, a late bloomer in education, to prosper later in a career. I could've been easily discarded as not good enough if I were a student in Karnataka. I owe my life to TN's strategy. This chance that I got is what is being assaulted by NEET. It stops the state from determining its strategy. Thats why NEET is poison and thats why TN should innovate a new strategy to get around it. 


krishnan said...

Brilliant, subtle and to the point. conclusion was hurried through. if both should not be compared how did you conclude that NEET is an assault on TN or upper funnel strategy?
The need is a new game plan and not to dismiss it (in your own words). TN had entrance exam till about 10 years or so ago. so it's not new.

why NEET is a problem? not because it assaults upper funnel strategy but because of inherent contradiction in our education system with legalities like applicability of article 30 (1).

Anonymous said...

Sir - by the same token, shouldn't each college (or at least the states hosting such colleges) be free to decide the funnel strategy they use for student intake? To counteract exactly the kind of gaming that TN has done, states / colleges should be free to standardize entrance examinations for their respective intake. Why is that a problem? I understand that NEET has been imposed by the central govt and not by any particular state / college, but if I understand your philosophy you would be opposed to that too on similar grounds.