India is scrambling to prepare colleges and universities for the upcoming generation of schoolchildren.

After 20 years of economic reforms, India is emerging into a new prosperity thanks to progressive polices and globalization, which has reduced poverty and helped its middle class thrive. But now, the country faces a seemingly insurmountable task: educate a generation of workers over the next decade to compete in a global workforce. So how big is the problem? Try 100 million young people entering the workforce between now and 2020. In a country with about 600 million citizens under the age of 25, India has a golden opportunity to live up to the projections of becoming the next China. But its current educational infrastructure cannot support this volume of learners, and the government has stated it needs 1,000 universities and 50,000 colleges to meet the pressing demand.

So what's a government to do? Put its hope in young, hungry entrepreneurs to build institutes of higher learning using U.S. universities as models.

The undergraduate educational system in India is already struggling in its current form. Multinational corporations report that generally about 1 of every 6 graduates is employable right out of college (and only 25% of engineering grads are), so the rest require in-house training to bridge the gap, according to a McKinsey Global Institute report highlighted in the Christian Science Monitor. The top 1% of students often go to school overseas, particularly in the U.S., then return to work at top Indian companies. The idea then is simple: reproduce the educational experience of the elite students for the masses...or at least move in that direction. Obviously, that's easier said than done.

These lofty goals leave educational planners with two options: either reform current schools or start from scratch. Currently, India has almost 9,500 institutions and indeed reform is underway, but it is mired by bureaucracy and regulations. At the same time, new schools are on the rise with nearly 1,000 applications for new institutions submitted just last year, according to the All India Council for Technical Education. To reach the 50,000 school goal, however, India will have to move into high gear to produce millions of graduates properly prepared for the workplace. The way forward is being aided by two old school approaches. First, schools are allying with reputable universities from the U.S. and other countries to form long-term partnerships. This strategy involves not only mirroring what the parent institution is providing, but forming stronger faculty connections, such as training and mentoring, along with work-abroad programs. Second, institutions simply go "off grid" by bypassing the burdensome accreditation process altogether, something that experts are increasingly calling upon U.S. institutions to do.

Beyond the logistics, the scale of the 50,000-college goal is so mind blowing because of the ever present and unforgiving reality of rising costs. While India looks initially to build brick-and-mortar schools, whether one-room schoolhouses or large campuses, the reality is new schools will increasingly be virtual. It's hard to argue against online education with all the success that free educational innovations like the Khan AcademyShowMe and MIT OpenCourseWare are demonstrating. In a way, these sites are making the necessity for having teachers a much lower priority, which significantly reduces cost. Furthermore, these resources serve as examples for entrepeneurs to replicate. In fact, India is in a prime position to become leaders in producing online educational content as top publishing companies have outsourced textbook production there for years. Add in the widely available and open-source courseware like Moodle and suddenly the overhead of running a college looks more like running a small online business. Additionally, this new crop of schools in India will likely be for-profit entities that lift the burden of in-house training off of companies by partnering with them directly to custom fit student education directing into existing workplaces. At the same time, these colleges could offer a more Western type of education rather than strictly providing workplace training. This would look like a liberal arts program hybridized with a technical degree, and serve to seriously bump up student interest and employability.

Higher education in the U.S. has been slowly undergoing its own transformation. A handful of elite schools are now offering the content of their education in the form of free online classes, but not the credits for them (though MIT may come up with a game-changer). For-profit institutions, like the University of Phoenix, comprise a $30 billion industry that has sought to offer alternative educational routes for more career-oriented students but they have recently come under long overdue scrutiny for false advertising. But these are all lessons in online education that Indian entrepreneurs can learn from, which is why this new crop of higher-education institutions could pose a threat to the U.S. educational sector. Currently, over 700,000 international students attend one of the 4,200 two- and four-year American institutions, and that number has been on the rise year after year. Economic projections for the next 10 years point to the educational industry being critical to U.S. sustainability, both to the economy directly and because of how it prepares Americans for the evolving workplace. The bottom line is that the status quo of higher education is in all likelihood the losing side.

Whether India can accomplish such an enormous challenge is highly debatable. The risk for failure is significant as rapid growth with decreased oversight is a hotbed for low standards, and consequently, exploitation when money is to be made. But with this great risk comes a potentially huge payoff: India's new higher-learning institutions could become competitive with and perhaps surpass U.S online education, turning the emerging educational system into the new model for 21st century learning.

Check out this piece about higher education reform efforts in India:

[Media: sxc, YouTube]

[Sources: Christian Science MonitorForbesMcKinsey QuarterlymyEducationTimesWorld Economic Forum]

I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.