When we think of Chinese parents, it’s not uncommon to think of a worried couple hovering over their single child, pouring all of their time and resources into the child’s education. Education’s link with success is unquestioned, and it is the single largest expense made by any family, rich or poor. For urban households, a child’s education can be up to 1/4 of the family’s income, and it is even higher for rural households (1/3).

Recently, this costly education, and the system that has given rise to it, has been under scrutiny in Keith Bradsher’s New York Times series Education Revolution. Originally designed to educate as many people as possible, and provide the vocational training and technical expertise that has allowed the Chinese economy to make giant strides into the global economy, China’s Gaokao-centered education nevertheless has systematic shortcomings. Specifically, critics point out that it doesn’t teach students communication and problem-solving skills that many companies look for in job candidates.

Still, families bet it all on education, and they have to believe it will pay off.

Chinese families have traditionally believed that investing in education is the best way to ensure a livelihood.  but the faith that academic success leads to job security is now being seriously challenged by the new realities of the Chinese economy. Though Chinese colleges churn out graduates by the millions, there aren’t enough white-collar jobs to keep up with – and pay off – the investment that families have made in their child’s education.

Lower-income families face an even worse predicament. Keith Bradsher’s story of  19-year old Wu Caoying and her parents, is a typical story heard in China. Wu is a lot more educated than her parents, but she isn’t certain that her college education, which is costing her parents more than half their combined annual income, will find her the job she needs to take care of herself and her parents.

As Bradsher points out for context, “American families that invest heavily in their children’s educations can fall back on Medicare, Social Security and other social programs in their old age. Chinese citizens who bet all of their savings on their children’s educations have far fewer options if their offspring are unable to find a job on graduation.”

Even with all the risks, Chinese parents can’t afford NOT to invest in the single-test system that brings them access to higher education.  They can’t afford NOT to try anything that might give their child an edge: the extra classes, the evening or weekend tutor, the endless hours of cramming and reviewing to get a good score on the Gaokao. The type of situation that the Wu family faces does not turn an average Chinese family away from college, but rather spurs them on to invest even more money into their child’s education. All for a college education that inadequately prepares students for the job market.

Like bailing water out of a leaking ship, Chinese parents see no choice but to continue to invest resources into their child’s education, because many families must rely on their only child in their old age. In other words, education must pay off in China, because it’s so inextricably linked to degrees and high-paying jobs.

The result is a paradoxical scenario: the continued investment in an education system in an ever-more competitive environment, where the outcome – that is, getting a job – is not guaranteed. Alongside it, an education industry has arisen that traffics in the cram classes, test preparation, and the latest supplementary teaching: all revolving around the Gaokao-centered education system.

So when we wonder why Chinese students memorize without learning, parents hire education consultants to give their child academic make-overs, and thousand of competitive applications flood the admission offices of American schools, the reason is that there is real pressure to stand out, and no one quite has the answer to the question: What can I do to make sure my child succeeds?


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