Muslim brides show their hands decorated with henna paste during a mass wedding ceremony in Ahmedabad
Muslim brides show their hands decorated with henna paste during a mass wedding ceremony in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad © Reuters

To understand a country’s values and culture you need only look to the lonely hearts pages in newspapers, where individuals advertise their qualities in the hope of attracting a partner.

India is no exception. From caste and community to religion and complexion, matrimonial adverts reveal divisions and discrimination in this vast and complex nation. But there is something else that has become a prominent feature in classified adverts in India: an MBA.

The marriage market

“Education definitely is more powerful in terms of signalling than potentially the profession you’re in,” says Gourav Rakshit, chief operating officer at, one of India’s largest matrimonial websites with some 10,000 registrations every day. “I guess it goes to breeding – people see that as a very powerful indicator of the individual or family they’re marrying into.”

In a nation where arranged marriages are common, potential earnings determine an individual’s eligibility and an MBA is thought to boost employability.

But that may be a misconception. Management colleges have mushroomed in India, with the total intake rising from 114,803 students in 2008 to 313,920 in 2012, according to data from the All India Council for Technical Education, the accreditation body. There is now an oversupply of MBAs in the jobs market; but while graduates from lower-tier schools are finding that their degree does not guarantee them a well-paid job, it does give them something else – a boost in the marriage market.

Social value of an MBA

“You’ve done an MBA degree – maybe you’re not doing anything after it – but your parents can say my son is an MBA,” says a student at Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, Hyderabad. “It is different to saying my son has a BA – a BA now is nothing.”

In a survey of 20,000 distance education MBA students, The Parthenon Group, an education consultancy, found that value in the marriage market was among the top three reasons why people chose to study their programme.

“When you talk about tier-two or tier-three programmes, you’re not certain about getting a job,” says Amit Garga, a senior principal at Parthenon. “The returns are beyond a job and in India the marriage market tends to be one of them.”

Those who question this reasoning have failed to recognise one quirk in many traditional Indian nuptials. Where an MBA usually provides financial returns in terms of a higher salary in the jobs market, in India it can also help a graduate earn a higher dowry in the marriage market.

But as more graduate with an MBA each year, the value of the degree as a social marker is diminishing.

“If one of the indicators [of], or a proxy for esteem is scarcity, then 20 years ago when you said you had an MBA people would sit up,” says Bibek Banerjee, director of the Institute of Management Technology Ghaziabad. “Today with the proliferation of MBAs, even in the lower rungs [of society] every other person you meet is an MBA so it is becoming commoditised.”

Nuanced signals

In a country where the husband is expected to be the principal breadwinner, the social value of an MBA differs between genders. “India is a deeply patriarchal society so it matters more for men than women,” says Sujoy Chakravarty, an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

But as the idea of a wife working outside the home becomes more accepted in modern India, an MBA reassures a groom and his family that, if necessary, the prospective bride can support the family.

From a female perspective, advertising these qualifications when looking for a partner also sends a more nuanced signal. “You’re clearly trying to communicate that you don’t belong to that social class where women are expected to cook for their family and look after the children,” Mr Banerjee adds.

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