Children studying beneath street lamps are a familiar sight in Vikram village, one that reinforces Anand Kumar’s belief that schoolchildren try harder in Bihar. In a state once scorned for its poor civic infrastructure and tardy economic growth, “they know they have no option but to study hard,” says Kumar, 38, a math buff who in 2003 founded Super 30, a widely recognized coaching class for underprivileged students who aspire to engineering careers.

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) have produced some of India’s finest engineers, who have achieved success at home and abroad. Competition is fierce for places in the 15 institutes, of which eight were added in 2008 and 2009. The IITs typically accept one in 60 applicants from among 450,000 each year. That competition has long sustained an industry of coaching classes that is often criticized for the quality of students it produces. Still, the classes are popular among those who can afford them.

Super 30 — free to 30 students of high merit each year — caters to the underprivileged and speaks to Kumar’s roots. The son of a postal department clerk, Kumar grew up in a family that often struggled financially. He went to a government-funded school for poor children in the state capital Patna. Yet his childhood dream of becoming a scientist nurtured in him a passion for math. While in college, he published a paper on number theory in The Mathematical Gazette of the U.K.’s Mathematical Association. He won admission to Cambridge University for a higher mathematics course, but had to forgo it because his family faced financial pressures after his father’s death. Kumar today recounts to his students those tales of hardship, including how his mother, Jayanti Devi, sold papads (home-made crisps) to make ends meet.

Kumar says those circumstances propelled him to set up Super 30 under the Patna-based Ramanujan School of Mathematics, a coaching class he founded in 1992 that is named for an Indian mathematical legend, Srinivasa Ramanujan. Super 30 is a frugal enterprise of three teachers and three support staff. Students stay for 10 months to a year at Kumar’s house and houses he rents in the neighborhood while they train for IIT joint entrance examinations (IIT-JEE). Jayanti Devi serves them hot meals. Kumar finances Super 30 with earnings from the Ramanujan School, which has 400 students.

In its first year, 18 of Super 30’s students passed the IIT-JEE. The success rate has risen steadily, reaching 100% the past three years. Super 30 has sent 212 students to the IITs, including the sons of an auto rickshaw driver, a roadside vendor and a landless laborer, Kumar says. Time magazine listed Super 30 as the best “cram school” in its Best of Asia 2010 annual guide last May. Others that have praised it include the Guardian newspaper, the Discovery Channel and NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting organization. Last July, a curious U.S. President Barack Obama sent an envoy, Rashad Hussain, to check out Super 30. Hussain called it India’s “best institute.”

The Method Behind the ‘Math-ness’

Kumar believes Super 30 works primarily because of the absence of alternatives. He says it teaches that education is students’ best and only way out of economic and caste discrimination, especially in a state that has historically attracted less industrial investment than others and one where floods routinely play havoc. “We tell them to take up education as a weapon. We give them garam bhashan (“hot lectures”) and they forget about their poverty,” Kumar says. “We show them photos of our mother in a torn sari and selling papads.”

Adequately fired up, Super 30’s students study from 14 to 16 hours a day. A community-living format helps. Contrary to popular perception, the students do not learn by rote; they are taught to approach problems multi-dimensionally, Kumar says. A popular Super 30 module delivered through multimedia projectors features two teens, Bholu and Rithwick. Rithwick, a rich kid, rides a bike and indulges in pizzas and burgers. Bholu, who represents a Super 30 student, is a poor kid in a kurta (light cotton shirt) and slippers who rides a cheap bicycle. But when grappling with a question, Bholu responds creatively with five to eight solutions; Rithwick uses traditional methods of thinking. “In a geometry problem, Bholu uses algebra or calculus to solve it creatively,” Kumar says. The two takeaways: Poor kids can solve problems, too, and “math and science can be very interesting.”

India’s growing demand for seats at the IITs and other engineering schools has spawned a coaching class industry, especially in and around Kota in Rajasthan and Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh. Many coaching classes have begun to attract private equity investments. Among the investors are Qatari investment bank Qinvest and Mumbai Angels, an angel investment group, according to an Indian Express newspaper report in January. Qinvest recently parked an undisclosed sum in FIITJEE, an IIT entrance exam training institute in New Delhi, and Mumbai Angels invested Rs.4.5 crore (US$1 million) in DEXL Education Institute in Jaipur, according to the Indian Express. But such private equity money is unlikely to head toward Super 30’s standalone institute. Private-equity investors are more likely to be attracted by those that can both scale up operations and tap into rising spending on private tuition. Average annual spending on private coaching by Indian students who receive it reached as high as Rs.3,500 (US$78), depending on region, according to the 2007-2008 report of the government-owned National Sample Survey Organization.

Educators or Burn-out Factories?

India’s coaching industry has annual revenue of Rs.4,000 crore (US$890 million), wrote E.C. Subbarao, a founding faculty member at IIT Kanpur, in his 2008 book on the institute’s completing 50 years, An Eye for Excellence. He joins critics who say coaching classes put students through 10 hours daily of practicing solutions to questions they are likely to face on entrance exams. For two years, critics say, they learn to fill in blanks or substitute numbers on an exam.

While students who come out of the “coaching factories” are bright, Subbarao writes, the coaching does “not educate them to think” and “after two to three years of intense coaching they are exhausted, almost burnt out, by the time they enter an IIT.” He accuses the industry of building a weak foundation in subjects other than the IIT-JEE subjects of mathematics, physics and chemistry. And the students have difficulty following lectures in English, he adds.

Subbarao notes that, after complaints from the IITs, a review committee in 2006 introduced reforms aimed at producing better-prepared students. The reforms included replacing a two-stage exam with a single-stage exam that combines both aptitude and analytical ability tests in an effort to discourage cramming; raising the IIT-JEE prequalification criteria to address “the serious issue of the JEE aspirants paying much more attention to their coaching classes” than to their primary studies; limiting the number of IIT-JEE attempts to two; and recasting the format of exam papers to include objective questions that vary from year to year. Subbarao says students and their parents can’t be faulted for availing themselves of coaching classes; they are driven by “the pathetic condition of the schools, especially in rural areas.”

P.K. Bansal, CEO of Bansal Classes Pvt. Ltd., the largest and oldest coaching class in Kota for the IIT-JEE and other exams, disagrees. At Bansal Classes, students learn concepts in depth, he says. “We take them to the climax from zero level in excellence,” he says. “Thereafter, fundamentally, they are able to solve any problem.” In any event, he says “it is not very tough to crack IIT-JEE” and “it is not possible to do it by mugging up” or learning by rote. His students report to Bansal that they do well in their careers. Bansal Classes currently has some 20,000 students in Kota and Jaipur, and has sent more than 10,000 to the IITs since it began operations in 1983. Nearly a quarter who appear for the IIT-JEE each year are accepted at an IIT, Bansal says. Each student pays Rs.65,000 (US$1,435) for a 10-month course of nine lectures weekly, two hours each.

Kumar says his objective at Super 30 “is for our kids to get knowledge and not necessarily high marks.” The problem, if any, lies with the IITs, he argues. “They give International Math Olympiad problems” in the entrance exam, he explains. “They compel the students to go to coaching classes. Why don’t the IITs give questions that challenge the IQ of students and draw out their true talents?” Raman Kumar, a design engineer at Bharat Heavy Electricals in Bangalore who attended Super 30 before securing a degree from IIT-Kharagpur in 2009, agrees that the exams have “trick questions.” Students learn at the coaching classes to deal successfully with such questions even if they do not learn the underlying concepts fully, says Raman Kumar, who is not related to Anand Kumar.

Acid Test in the Workplace

After these students enter the workforce, they face challenges that lie beyond coaching classes, says Pradeep Mukerjee, founder-director of Confluence Coaching and Consulting, a management consulting firm in Mumbai, and former head of human resources for Citigroup across South Asia. Mukerjee hasn’t hired a Super 30 product yet, but feels that Super 30 and the coaching classes in Kota “are just doing a brilliant job. Why blame them?” He too went to a coaching class in Mumbai before enrolling in IIT-Kharagpur (Class of 1979). “You took a set of problems and solved them. You recognized which pattern they belonged to and solved them.”

Mukerjee, like Subbarao, is convinced that the problem of equipping students adequately for higher education lies in the school system. He wonders whether India’s education system, “barring a few elite schools, is geared for a person to fill out a mass of content at an exam paper or is it geared to helping people understand what they are learning and ask the question why.” He faults schools for not instilling an inquiring mind and the skills to articulate and interact with other people. Citing a McKinsey report of a few years ago, he says just a quarter of engineering graduates from across India’s public and private institutions are employable. As for coaching classes, he asks, “If my education system demands that I spend 10 to 15 hours a day beyond classrooms to pass an examination, then where am I picking up the basic skills of dealing with other human beings which is the core of any employment?”

Improvement in the basic education system would of course reduce students’ dependence on coaching classes, and the classes’ influence could wane. Subbarao writes that he hopes the IIT-JEE reforms would “encourage students to take more interest in their regular school studies.” He adds: “What effect they will have on the lucrative coaching industry is yet to be seen.”

The coaching classes — including Bansal and Super 30 — nonetheless plan to expand. Kumar dreams of setting up a Super 30 in each Indian state. Some of his own students could perhaps lead such an effort with a revolutionary zeal to spread education, he says. The number 30 is also a limitation, he says, and he is contemplating taking in 50 or 60 students each year, with instruction that goes beyond the IIT entrance exams. Bansal says he plans to set up numerous schools from Classes 1 to 10 across the country in the foreseeable future.

Death Threats and Copycats

Super 30’s success has at times brought Kumar problems. A few years ago, he received death threats and demands for money. When he refused, his home was fired upon. Three people were caught and no one was hurt. Later, armed assailants entered Kumar’s house, stabbed a staffer and seriously wounded him. He survived. Kumar now has two police bodyguards supplied by the Bihar government.

Kumar says several institutes calling themselves Super 30 have sprung up in the state, with some branding themselves as branches of the original and collecting donations. Super 30 has steadfastly declined donations, even as it receives more than a dozen offers each month from big donors and nonresident Indians, Kumar says. He has also said no to publishers and filmmakers who have courted him to buy the rights for Super 30 stories “and are willing to give crores. We want to show you can do it without donations.” Super 30’s web home page has the word “Donations” prominently crossed out. If necessary, Kumar says, Super 30 will publish its educational material and earn royalties. “When I need the money I will write my story and raise funds,” he says. “Housla (courage in Hindi) is the main thing; garv (pride) also is there.”