How now, gao kao

So this past week nearly 9 million Chinese teenagers participated in the closest thing to a national rite of passage that China has these days: the gao kao. That’s the nation-wide standardized college entrance exam, a grueling two-day exercise that tests everything from a student’s knowledge of advanced physics to her familiarity with, say, the establishment of the Han dynasty in the 3rd century BC, to her grasp on tax laws. This test makes the SAT look like a questionnaire passed out at the mall.

This year, there are about 2.6 million undergraduate spots available at four-year institutions in China. Less prestigious technical and vocational schools have another two to three million slots for examinees. That means that come fall, about half of the exam-takers won’t be enrolled in any kind of higher education at all, so the stakes are high.

Particularly in urban areas, where compliance with the one-child policy is nearly universal, the gao kao brings out serious tension in families. The family’s hope—for their only child/grandchild’s future, but also for their own—rests squarely on the shoulders of these poor eighteen-year-olds. This past week, the newspapers were full of tips about what to feed your child in the days leading up to the exam, as well as stories about emergency psychological counseling for distressed test-takers. One of Babi’s students reported that a friend of his was so spooked by the exam that when he finally sat down to take it, all he could write was his name.

Students prepare for the gao kao intensively throughout their senior (third) year of high school. In a sense, they prepare for the gao kao for many years more than that, but it is in their senior year that they begin the routine of getting up around 6 or 6:30 am to study, spending the day at school, and continuing to study until 9 or 10 at night. Every day, with maybe a half-day off on weekends. There is a documentary out now (or coming out soon?) called Gao san (senior year) 高三, which follows a class at the no. 1 high school in a certain small town in Guangdong province over the year that they prepare for the gao kao. It sounds like a pretty good film, though it also sounds like one of those that would be nerve-wracking and horrible to watch, because you can feel the students’ stress and fatigue.

Before the students take the exam, they must submit a registration form, on which they declare which schools and majors they’re interested in, usually a choice informed by their performance on practice exams. If you’ve never made above a 440 on a practice exam, and you only register for top-level unis like Peking University or Fudan, in Shanghai, you run the risk of not getting in anywhere at all. On the other hand, you won’t get accepted to a school you don’t register for, so if you only applied for vocational schools, that’s what you’ll get, even if you perform spectacularly well. And you’re not just applying for a university, but for a major as well, and different majors have different baseline acceptance scores. The hottest majors apparently require the highest scores, so someone who wants to study business at Qinghua (the MIT of China) has to get a higher score than someone who wants to study engineering (! or so we’ve been told by a high school student, but I’d have to do some research to confirm).

So the students register, and then they take their two-day exam (some traveling from extremely remote areas), and then they and their parents wait. This year, students and parents can pick up their scores on June 25th. But they won’t know whether they’ve been admitted to any of the programs they applied for until a month or so later, when the schools start issuing their acceptance letters. This is because the scores needed for acceptance are floating, not fixed: whether or not your 550 is good enough to go to Beijing U of Technology depends on how well everybody else did.

And that’s the admissions process for higher education in China. There’s no application essay or recommendation letters or interviews. Where (and whether) you go to college depends on a three-digit score and your ability to accurately guess ahead of time what that score would be.

Or does it? As we’ve been talking to friends and students about the gao kao this week, we’ve learned about some alternative routes to higher education. My friend who will defend her Ph.D. dissertation at Qinghua next week never took the gao kao. Based on her performance in school, she was recommended to Dalian U of Tech by the principal of her high school. After an interview with the DUT folks, she was in like Flynn. One of Babi’s students explained that he took a special math/science exam when he was fifteen, and because he did well enough on that (they were apparently trying to groom youngsters to compete in international math and science Olympiads) he was exempted from the gao kao. Of course, he reports having studied for that exam for five years, so was it really worth it? Maybe just testament to how strong his desire to avoid the gao kao was.

These days, though, getting into college is no guarantee that you’ll find satisfying work or be financially secure in the future. The higher education system in China has expanded incredibly in recent decades. According to this report , in 1978 there were 856,000 students total in Chinese colleges and universities, and in 2000 the number of places available for freshmen alone was 1.8 million. And this year, as I mentioned, the number of freshman slots at 4-year colleges is 2.6 million. That’s a huge increase. In some provinces, the number of students at university has increased five-fold over the past seven or eight years. This means that more and more Chinese college graduates are competing for jobs that shouldn’t require a college degree.

The Southern Weekly 南方周末 ran a story a couple of weeks ago about how college graduates in Qinghai (a big, poor province between Xinjiang and Tibet) can’t find jobs, and the household registration system makes it very hard for them to move to, say, Beijing in search of work. The reporter described a pitiful scene at a “university job fair,” in which college girls crowded around the tables hoping they were tall enough or good-looking enough to be hired as waitresses at local restaurants. Imagine putting in a year’s worth of fourteen-hour days studying for an exam so you can get into college, then working hard for four years to earn a degree (your family probably making significant sacrifices to support you financially), and then finding that your best long-term job prospect is as a waitress or a dumpling chef. Ai io.