Lingering anxiety and lost talent: the college-entrance exam economy in China

College entrance exams in China usually end in June and a new term starts at the beginning of September. But the anxiety among students and parents from college entrance exams is still lingering.

Students and parents not only care about whether they can enter college, but also whether they can enter a prestigious school. Anxiety, therefore, accompanies their expectations. For many students, once they get their scores on college entrance exams, they decide to enroll themselves at a school that focuses on preparing for the next exam.

In Shanghai, the Municipal Institution for Educational Testing reveals that more than 100 students who are not matriculated by the key universities refuse to go to other colleges that are considered common four-year schools, and that over 5,000 qualified students give up their opportunity to go to a three-year college. Most of these students will end up enrolling at schools that prepare them for next year’s college entrance exam, so that they can compete with other examiners for a spot in prestigious universities such as Beijing University and Qinghua University.

The market for remediation schools is prosperous. A small town called Shangdundu in Jiangxi province in southern China attracted nearly 10 thousand students from all over the country to attend the two schools there for exam preparation. The attraction is because of the two schools’ mystical success — 50 of their students, or 1/3 of their entire student body, entered Beijing and Qinghua University this year. The 20 students admitted by Qinghua University weren’t first-time test-takers. An influx of examiners into the town increased demand for housing, elevating rent and apartment prices there. Restaurants and internet cafes mushroomed within few years. The pedicabs and peddlers in the peasant markets are getting better business. Even selling boiled water around the schools becomes a thriving business.

A researcher at the Central Educational Science Research Institution analyzes that about 30% of the examiners every year are doing it at least the second time. In 2007, there are 3 million second-time examiners. Spending 3,000 yuan (~$400) each for enrollment fees in preparation school, these students feed a 1.2 billion-dollar exam preparation economy, not including the cost of living and learning materials.

Why would so many young students spend a whole year reviewing the same old exam materials, when they could be learning new things in college or doing something more worthwhile? One culturally related reason is the conformity among Chinese. People tend to blindly follow the main stream. The whole society identifies with the idea that going to key universities and choosing so-called hot majors is the sole bridge to becoming a valued talent. On job market, the primary criterion for selecting an employee is whether s/he graduated from a prestigious school. The concept of hierarchy is deeply rooted. Even in graduate school recruitment, the candidate’s undergraduate school is an important factor.

This unhealthy and unproductive aspect of Chinese culture is not left unnoticed. Just like an accomplished Chinese scholar puts it: when half of the students in China do not want to go to Beijing or Qinghua University, it will indicate a breakthrough in our educational reform and concept of talent.

References (Chinese news sources):

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