Rachel Wang

A Test of Faith: Chinese Students’ Changing Views on the National College Entrance Examination

Parents wait anxiously outside a Gaokao testing center (via Flickr/zhangmirror)

“Education changes one’s destiny,” goes the long-believed Chinese motto. For students from rural areas, who usually have less access to both higher educational resources and fewer options to get rich compared to their peers in China’s cities, the once-yearly Gaokao college entrance examination is their best chance to change their lives.

In imperial times, those who wanted to become officials but could neither afford to bribe other officials nor buy a post had to pass the Keju (科举), the civil service examination. The exam was seen as a way out of poverty for talented students in olden times.

Though the Keju no longer exists, its essence remains. The once-a-year Gaokao is regarded as an equal opportunity for all to change their fates. Test questions are the same province-wide, the proctoring is extremely strict, the scoring process is blind (teachers cannot see students’ names on the tests), and there is almost no way to cheat (test booklets are guarded by armed police prior to the examination) or bribe the graders. Gaokao is thought to be a relatively fair chance for all students, regardless of their family backgrounds. But for some, this conventional wisdom no longer holds true.

According to the Sina Weibo account of Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily (@人民日报), rural children “no longer want to jump the ‘dragon’s gate,’” a Chinese traditional saying that means to change one’s fate. The People’s Daily wrote, “With the [exam] approaching, [one] niece suddenly decided to give up on it. While her cousin was very concerned about it, the niece reacted peacefully: ‘Four years of college will cost more than 20,000 RMB [about US$3,200] every year, in the end it’s still hard to find a good job, so it’s better to work right now.’ The unwillingness to ‘jump the dragon’s gate’ is because of the unequal distribution of educational resources in the rural and urban areas, as well as the unfair competition to which it leads. [The problem] starts in kindergarten and continues up to middle school; rural kids are losing at the starting line.”

This post garnered thousands of reposts and comments from netizens who seemed moved by its implication that social mobility in China has stagnated. User @海的天空01 wrote, “I am also a college student from a rural area. While I was trying to get into high school in an urban area, the required minimum test score was very high, but I finally got in with a high score Later I found out that only a few students in my class actually passed the line. Someone was even 200 points below me. [The maxium possible Gaokao score varies, but is generally around 750]. Urban kids didn’t have to try as hard I did to get into high schools, while students from rural areas have to pay thousands for even one point less.”

User @林稻亚 wrote, “I am also from a rural area, and I grew up being educated with the idea that ‘education changes one’s fate’. Now I am about to enter the work force, about to step into the real world, and I realize that it’s not true. There are so many drawbacks in contemporary society, and it’s getting harder and harder for rural kids to get rid of the constraints generated by their rural backgrounds.”

Voices decrying the lack of social mobility were not universal. User @变成瘦肉-从我做起 wrote, “This is obviously denial. My tuition is 10,000 RMB per year, which is already very expensive, but even with other living expenses included it’s still less than 20,000. I have also seen other students who are not coming from rich families, but they spend wastefully in schools. This is simply a misplacement of one’s attitude. Everything else is just excuses.”

User @ NOBLF-ZHAO argued, “This is only an idea believed by an extremely small number of people. In fact, the majority of students still place their hopes in the Gaokao. They wish to change their fate through the Gaokao, rather than start their own businesses unrealistically.”

The girl described in the People’s Daily perhaps made the right choice, at least in the year 2013. Facing the toughest job market recorded in the history of China, many of the 6.99 million freshly-minted college graduates may have to accept a bitter truth: the idea that “graduation equals unemployment,” which renders college education a questionable investment. The already-brutal job-hunting process might be even more difficult for college graduates from rural areas. Unlike their urban peers, they have fewer connections in higher employment, urban areas, not to mention less experience and knowledge about urban living. In a tight job market, these factors could prove crucial.

The Gaokao system is also becoming less and less merit-based. Monetary resources can also be an important factor in the achievement of better test scores; schools in rich and urban areas can pay for better teachers and teaching materials, which separate the poorer students from the fast track. For example, a half month-long summer Gaokao prep course in a Beijing New Oriental School comes in at a bit over 5000 RMB (about 900 USD). While this is about half a month’s salary for a 30-something professional in Beijing, it is about 70% of a farmer’s annual income.

Ji Baocheng, a Chinese educator and the former President of China’s Renmin University, once said, “Almost no children of mayors, Party secretaries of municipal committees, county heads or the Party secretaries of county committees go to vocational schools.” According to a study conducted by the MyCOS Research Institute and Shanghai Academy of Educational Science, over the past three years, 88% of graduates from higher vocational schools were the first person from their families to pursue higher education; 82% of students in medium vocational schools were from rural areas, and 70% of medium vocational school students were from Central or Western China, which are poorer areas compared to China’s east coast. Students whose parents were farmers or workers consisted of 80% of those being surveyed.

Students from all background also face an overall decline in the quality of Chinese higher education. With the huge expansion of college enrollment in the last decade, educational resources have been spread thin. This national expansion can be traced back to 1999. Based on the idea that college should not be “elite education” but “public education,” as well as the need for more educated employees in the labor force, the central government decided to “widely expanded the recruitment of college and universities.”

According to the Nanjing-based Modern Express, the number of graduates in 2013 represents a 230% increase compared to 2003. But the ranks of teachers have not kept pace with overall enrollment. For example, compared to 1998, in 2005, the number of college students in Hubei province had increased fourfold, but the number of teachers had only doubled.

The declining value of a college degree brings not only financial dissatisfaction, but a sense of loss and hopelessness. For many young Chinese, getting into an excellent college—or simply getting into college—is a pursuit that defines their early lives. This has been especially true since the restoration of the Gaokao system in the late 1970s, after the Cultural Revolution had ended and the country was waiting to be rebuilt. For rural students, being able to get into college is also associated with more complicated feelings: being able to turn one’s back on agricultural life and assume more of the rights and responsibilities of a full citizen.

While increasingly diversified opinions towards higher education are presented on Weibo, competition for the Gaokao is still the mainstream approach for over nine million students who are expected to take the examination starting June 7. What Weibo user @ y魔术师9 wrote may reflect the views of the majority: “We can’t choose our family background; this is not our parent’s fault but the system’s. What we can do is strengthen ourselves. Don’t wildly wish for this social system will be changed one day; no one else is your savior in this world but yourself. Study hard. Though the Gaokao is not the only way out, it is the safest and fastest way out of poverty.”

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Rachel Wang

Rachel Wang is currently based in Beijing working in media. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Economics, and enjoys reading analyses regarding international affairs, Tim Harford and books about china (that's with a lower-case "c").
  • Alex

    Excellent article. This is the type of stuff I would like to see more often.

  • Amy Werbel

    This is so sad, but so true. For many of the Chinese students I met and spoke with as a Fulbright Scholar teaching in Guangzhou last year, education seemed to be the one area of national institutional life they still felt might be “fair.” They had worked hard, and succeeded. But at the same time, many were pessimistic about their prospects and bitter that without guanxi (family connections) they were at a severe disadvantage. The Ministry of Education should be really careful not to disillusion this generation any more than they already are . . .