Fan Yue looked into the future and didn’t like what she saw.
As a high-school student in this eastern Chinese city of 4.6 million, she dreamed of going to college and studying education. But most Chinese universities are uninspiring, she said. She heard cheating was pervasive and that many people skip class. Students are required to study “Mao Zedong thought.”
Just getting in takes years of study for the gaokao entrance exam, which is like the SAT on steroids. Students must memorize poetry tracing back to the 7th century. Few of the millions who take it get into China’s top universities, with competition in Ms. Fan’s home province of Jiangsu particularly fierce.
Going through such a process “where I don’t learn anything” would be soul-crushing, said Ms. Fan, 20 years old. “There’s no meaning there.”
There was another option: America. She had heard it was dangerous and wondered if she’d need to carry a knife. Her parents were against it.
Yet on a brief visit to the U.S., she was inspired by the leafy campuses and sense of academic freedom. She applied to the University of California, Irvine, and got in.
Many people assume foreign students at U.S. colleges are rich, pampered youths out to have a good time before returning home to lives of privilege. Sometimes this is true.
But as the number of foreign students surges on U.S. campuses—nearly a million were enrolled last year, up more than 40% from five years earlier—more are coming from middle-class backgrounds like Fan Yue’s.
They’re eager to escape flawed education systems back home, where low standards are leaving many ill-prepared for a global economy.
This is especially true in China, by far the biggest source of foreign students in America. Many Chinese youths see their own universities as diploma mills, churning out graduates whose earnings potential is often bleak. Government statistics show the average monthly salary for college graduates half a year after leaving school was 3,487 yuan ($539), slightly less than what a migrant worker in the construction sector makes on average.
Such rejections are the latest sign of how some Chinese families are questioning domestic institutions and looking for options abroad.
Beijing has responded by pouring money into higher education to try to make its system globally competitive. Authorities have also tightened the reins on international programs that prepare students to study abroad.
China’s education ministry, in a written response to faxed questions, said it supports students going abroad and is working to increase the international competitiveness of its schools. It also said it was “actively encouraging study-abroad students to return home and serve the nation.” Regarding employment challenges, it said it is encouraging more students to pursue entrepreneurship.
In China, the number of higher-education institutions has more than doubled since 2000, to 2,529, as part of an effort by officials to try to build a more skilled workforce. Some 7.5 million students graduated last summer, nearly eight times as many as in 2000. In the U.S., some 3.8 million degrees were awarded last year in associate programs or above.
While Beijing has succeeded in creating a number of globally ranked universities, government spending is heavily weighted toward around 100 elite schools, leaving other schools underfunded.
The principal of a southern China university sparked headlines recently when he noted that top-ranked Zhejiang University received more government funding in three months than his school, Guizhou University, had received in 63 years.
“It’s like China and the Olympics,” said Chen Pingyuan, a Peking University professor who has written extensively about education. “They get many gold medals, but national fitness is terrible. The goal of sports isn’t medals, it’s overall health. The same should be true of education.”
For students, campus life is heavily regimented, with strict curfews. Every publicly funded school is required to have a Communist Party committee, which is charged with helping direct the ideological, political and moral education of students.
Such pressures have intensified under President Xi Jinping, who has stressed the need to deepen education in so-called “core socialist values.” China’s education minister last year instructed colleges to resist Western values and more closely scrutinize Western textbooks. China’s schools, he recently told The Wall Street Journal, aim “to make our students qualified to inherit and build up socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which is how the Communist Party describes its official ideology.
Students and teachers are denied access to websites such as Facebook and Google Scholar, a mainstay for many academics.
Facilities are often dreary, with frigid classrooms or understocked libraries. In 2014, a popular social media hashtag #12StudentsinOneDorm attracted tens of thousands of comments on Twitter-like network Weibo, with students voicing gripes about cockroach-filled, overcrowded dorms.
For Wang Yu, who grew up not far from Fan Yue’s hometown of Yangzhou, going overseas wasn’t an option. “Studying abroad was just too expensive,” said Ms. Wang, the 21-year-old daughter of a factory worker and real-estate agent who was raised in the city of Changzhou. Tuition in China is comparatively inexpensive, in Ms. Wang’s case around 6,000 yuan, or $926.
Ms. Wang wound up enrolled at Yangzhou University, where she sat through mandatory classes on Marxist and military theory, the latter which involved studying the various components of machine guns. “It felt like they really wanted you to know how strong the country was,” she said. Students didn’t pay much attention, she said, relying on notes from upperclassmen to cram for tests.
“In China, it’s a lot about memorization. There’s not so much creativity there,” said Ms. Wang, a junior studying English education.
The academic culture also tends to discourage individuals from standing out. On a recent day, Ms. Wang sat in a chilly classroom as the professor, who was leading a class on principles of psychology and education, delivered a lecture on the importance of concentration.
The professor instructed students to read a paragraph about a teacher’s lesson, which described the teacher as wearing new, pretty clothes and using multicolored chalk to decorate the blackboard in an eye-catching fashion. During the class discussion that followed, students criticized the instructor in the passage for making it harder for students to concentrate.
Afterward, Ms. Wang shrugged. “I knew we were supposed to be critical of the teacher, so that’s what happened.”
Students are especially frustrated over the gaokao, the test they must take to get in. Unlike the SAT, which measures aptitude in reading, math and writing, the gaokao relies more on memorization of facts from Chinese history and culture.
In the U.S., students can submit grades, teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities on top of standardized test scores.
In China, admission hinges on the gaokao, which can only be taken once annually. Competition is intense. Last summer, a Sichuan family made headlines when it emerged that a mother hid from her daughter news of her father’s death for nearly two weeks until she’d finished taking the test, for fear it would influence her results.
Top-scoring students, known as zhuangyuan, are feted with parades. Like many students, Ms. Wang spent years cramming fiercely, waking up at 6 a.m. and not finishing her homework until 1 to 2 a.m.
With so much pressure, cheating is hard to stamp out. Students have been caught using wireless devices in pens or watches to relay answers. Some test sites use wireless jamming signals to prevent answer-sharing.
Crackdowns have enraged parents who fear the moves hurt their kids’ odds of getting in. During one in Hubei province a few years ago, parents and students threw rocks and smashed cars, chanting, “There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat,” according to Chinese media reports at the time, including one by the China Youth Daily.
For all its faults, many Chinese view the gaokao as the only fair way to handle so many applicants. In theory, it removes subjective judgments by admissions staff that could be influenced by money and connections.
Such advantages are outweighed, critics say, by regional inequities that favor residents of cities like Beijing and Shanghai. They are home to China’s best schools and offer larger gaokao quotas to locals.
Students are assigned to universities based on their scores. The scores also play a role in determining what they’re allowed to study. In Ms. Wang’s case, while her score wasn’t high enough for the most elite schools, she managed to win entrance to Yangzhou University. Her first choice of a major was nursing. Instead, the school assigned her to study cooking.
Ms. Wang spent a year practicing knife skills and learning tasks such as how to wrap steamed buns before she switched to her current major, English education. While she occasionally peppers her speech with an English word or two, she says she still feels uncomfortable when speaking the language.
Increasingly, China’s middle class is opting out. The number of students taking the gaokao peaked in 2008 at 10.5 million. Last year it was 9.4 million.
During the same period, the number of Chinese students in U.S. schools more than tripled to 304,040 in the 2014-15 academic year.
Ms. Fan, the student now at UC Irvine, just wanted a chance to explore.
A tomboy partial to jeans and sneakers, she knew little about the U.S. other than what she saw in movies and TV. She said she thought of it as a warlike country that bullied other nations, but also made cool products such as Apple devices.
Her parents grew up poor, eating meat only on holidays. They pooled money from relatives to start a paintbrush factory, and the business grew. They hoped their daughter would be the first in the family to go to college.
Ms. Fan’s parents doubted a U.S. education would mean a better-paying job. As more Chinese study abroad, many are returning to find their degree isn’t much of an advantage. They worried the U.S. was filled with guns.
After a two-week U.S. tour led by her high school, though, Ms. Fan was convinced. She saw students could study whatever they wanted and take “gap” years to explore their interests. It seemed so free, she said.
Her parents gave in.
Ms. Fan memorized thousands of English words for a language test and did well enough on the SAT to get in. Before leaving for Irvine, she took cooking lessons from her grandmother in case she couldn’t find foods that tasted like home.
In Irvine, Ms. Fan said she found it hard to keep up with lectures because teachers talked too quickly. She realized students couldn’t just memorize texts and regurgitate them on tests, as they did back home.
She studied hard and got A’s and B’s in her first quarter. She hasn’t yet declared a major. “Math is easy for me,” she wrote in a recent email. “I like anthropology least. It is too hard for me to understand and do so much reading.”
She marveled at the fact that students were permitted to lounge on the grass. She explored Los Angeles and encountered people who dressed like hippies. “In China, those people would be seen as really strange,” she said. She made plans to go skiing and visit a hot spring during spring break.
In one class she met students who spoke Mandarin but turned out to be Taiwanese. It was the first time she had met anyone from the island which asserts its independence, despite Beijing’s insistence it belongs to China.
In December, Ms. Fan returned home for the holidays. She said it was good to be home, but after a while it grew a little dull.
It was different from the U.S., she said, where “there’s always something to do, to learn.”
Back in Yangzhou, Ms. Wang was thinking about her future.
She thought she would likely apply for graduate school. So many Chinese have college diplomas now that increasing numbers are seeking higher degrees to stay competitive.
At times, she felt school may not have boosted her prospects much. Upon graduation, should she get a job teaching, she might make only around 3,000 yuan, she said, about what her father, who never attended college, makes as an auto-parts worker.
By TE-PING CHEN and MIRIAM JORDAN May 1, 2016 on the Wall Street Journal
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