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Jishnu Dasgupta knew the craze in India for getting an MBA had gone too far when he asked a neighbour what she wanted to be when she grew up. Rather than wax lyrical about becoming a doctor, a physiotherapist or an entrepreneur, the high-school student shot back: “I want to be an MBA.”

“How can you ‘want to be an MBA’?” says Dasgupta, an engineering graduate who later earned an MBA himself, mainly to help make a career change.

He adds: “You might want to be in marketing, maybe. You might want to start a company of your own if you have an idea. But an MBA isn’t a profession by itself; it is a qualification.”

Like it or not, however, in India an MBA has become much more than just a qualification.

In the west, an MBA may be chiefly a means to an end, a tool to find a new job, become an entrepreneur or burnish already strong business school credentials. But in India, the holder of an MBA is marked as elite not only in the office but also socially. A graduate will marry well and his or her family will bask in the reflected glory of having an MBA in the house.

“It helps parents to climb the social ladder by claiming, ‘My child is an MBA,’” says Professor Prem Chandrani of the SP Jain Institute of Management & Research in Mumbai. “It doesn’t matter where they got the MBA from or the marks they got.”

Education has always been one of the highest social indicators for the middle and upper middle classes in India. Traditionally, the top ranking in the marriage market went to those who won entry into the coveted Indian Administrative Service (IAS), which produces the country’s senior bureaucrats.

Next in line were students of the Indian Institutes of Technology, among whose graduates are top software engineers, and the Indian Institutes of Management, which produce the country’s corporate leaders.

But in recent years, MBAs of all descriptions have risen to command respectable positions in the social hierarchy among these other qualifications.

The country has roughly 3,000 MBA schools, although only about 20 of these are respected in the industry. Of the estimated 50,000 MBA graduates from Indian schools every year, only 3,000 would be considered employable by the top companies, according to Abbasali Gabula, chairperson of external relations at SP Jain.

The salaries of graduates of the top schools tend to rise much faster than those of comparable engineering graduates. This increasing reputation for high salaries is driving Indian parents to seek out spouses for their children who have MBAs – even though many of these qualifications may be of questionable quality.

Gourav Rakshit of Shaadi.com, one of India’s biggest marriage websites, says MBAs are now competing successfully with information technology qualifications in the wedding market. “The demand for an MBA education has gone up significantly,” he says.

In some parts of India, MBAs are even catching up with the coveted IAS qualification. Prof Chandrani cites a friend whose daughter was marrying in Bihar, one of India’s poorest and most traditional states. There, a groom with a good MBA qualification might command a dowry of Rs6m ($132,000) from his bride – only about Rs500,000 behind an IAS officer.

In a kind of educational arms race, however, parents are countering the rising dowries commanded by MBA graduates by also putting their daughters through MBA schools. Grooms cannot demand such high dowries from a bride who has her own MBA.

And Rakshit of Shaadi.com says that in today’s online marriage market, many women with MBAs will not consider a potential suitor at all if he does not have a similar qualification.

“A lot of guys don’t get a shot at all because of those three letters,” he says.

These letters can also be useful outside business and romance. In a sticky situation in India, such as in a traffic accident, some MBA graduates flash their cards to display their qualifications to the police. Education is so respected in the country that the officer might give them the benefit of the doubt.

“The fact that you are an educated person means you probably made a mistake – people don’t think you committed that crime or broke the law wilfully,” says Prof Chandrani wryly.

Still, there are a brave few remaining in India who are not married to their MBAs. Dasgupta says he got his MBA to escape from the software industry.

He went into marketing afterwards but, in an unexpected twist, has ended up working as the professional bassist in Swarathma, a contemporary folk fusion band from Bangalore, the Indian equivalent of Silicon Valley. It is a job for which he definitely does not need an MBA.

“The band was a chance to live a dream. So I went ahead with it,” he says.

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