“I took eight AP classes in high school, how about you?”
At a welcome event for incoming students at UC San Diego, my new classmates talked about the advanced placement classes they took at their high schools in Shenzhen, one of China’s most developed cities.
In my hometown, almost nobody knows about AP classes, let alone taken one.
I’m from Qujing, a small city in southwestern China’s Yunnan province. I came to the United States as high school exchange student, then enrolled in Santa Barbara City College before transferring to UC San Diego.
This makes me something of an exception. Where I’m from – like much of rural China – students have few opportunities to catch up with their peers in the big cities and study abroad. While the differences between China and the United States is already wide, the gap between China’s rural residents and middle-upper class urbanites is even greater.
The rural education challenge
In the last four decades, China has made outstanding achievements in education. Since the 1980s, the adult literacy rate rose from 65% to today’s 96%. More than 60% of high school graduates in China now go on to attend university, up from 20% in the 1980s.
Yet these gains have been uneven, with a wide gap in rural and urban education. According to the Stanford Rural Education Action Program, over 70% of urban students are admitted to college, compared to less than 5% of rural students. This is in part due to the fact that urban residents make three times more, on average, than rural residents.
But other factors complicate the story. Children in the countryside are often raised far from their parents, who migrate to the cities to work. There are an estimated sixty-million such “left-behind” children in China. Less parental care makes these kids more vulnerable to distractions such as mobile gaming and video streaming apps. Parents who return from the city for the holidays often joke that they find their children “holding a phone while eating, walking, even sleeping.”
While rural parents spend less on their children’s education, some studies show they expect less, too. Zhang Li, a researcher at the University of Oslo surveyed groups of urban and rural students and their parents in Yunnan province in southwestern China and found that over 95% of urban parents wanted their children to pursue higher education, compared to under 60% among rural parents.
In part, lower educational aspirations may stem from a perception of the falling value of a college degree. In the planned economy era, a bachelor’s degree meant a guaranteed government job upon graduation. Even today, my grandmother scoffs at the idea of my paying international tuition without the assurance of civil service job afterward.
Since reform and opening in 1978, graduates are facing ever stiffer competition. In 2018, 8.2 million new college students graduated and enter the job market. For rural students, the challenge is even greater because of the lack of well-connected family members. Facing these barriers, many parents seem to have lost confidence in higher education, and would rather see their children enter the job market earlier.
Wealthy education woes
Even for families with means, the path to higher education is not easy. According to The Value of Education survey conduct by HSBC Group, families in Hong Kong spend the most on children’s education, paying $132,000 USD per household from primary school through college — almost triple the world average. Taiwan and mainland China rank fifth and sixth, spending about $56,000 and $43,000 respectively on primary through tertiary education.
For China’s upper-middle class, the costs can run much higher. After you factor in private education, study abroad, and extracurricular lessons in Chinese, math, and English, parents can easily spend tens of thousands of dollars a year. At first glance, it might seem irrational to spend so much on education, but for Chinese parents, the logic of education is compelling.
Chinese parents’ anxiety over education stems in part from China’s own rapid success. In the past forty years, China’s real GDP per capita, measured in today’s prices, has grown from just about $200 in 1980 to $8500 in 2016. Many of today’s parents still have childhood memories of poverty. New middle-class parents are likely to know friends who “didn’t make it.” My father has a friend and coworker who entered the company at same time but is still stuck on the factory floor earning about ¥1,500 ($400 PPP) per month. In this environment, it’s understandable to feel anxious and afraid about your child falling behind.
Another reason is China’s falling birth rate. In many parts of developing world, children are a retirement investment. Under the one-child policy, the parents’ welfare was pinned on just one child. With few other means of investing for retirement, many parents chose to heavily invest in their children.
Peer pressure also matters. Because anxiety over education is so commonly held, parents may feel compelled to spend as much as they can afford to gain and sustain approval from friends and family.
Closing the gap
With such a stark disparity between the cities and the countryside, addressing rural education is urgent.
New technology is helping close the gap. Since 2016, 248 under-served high schools in the poor areas have tuned into “live streaming classrooms” hosted by Chengdu No.7 High School, one of the top high schools in China. Over the livestream, the program puts together two groups of students that could not be more different — upper-middle class students and their peers from the country’s most educationally under-served families.
Despite early pushback from both teachers and students, this program seems to be a big success. Eighty-eight of the participating rural students were recently admitted to Tsinghua University and Peking University, China’s top two schools.
I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to study at UC San Diego, but for millions of students who live in underdeveloped areas, the gap is so big that they know nothing about the other side of world. For these families and urban families alike, getting their children the education they seek will remain a challenge in the years ahead.