Are More Chinese Teenagers Reconsidering College?

Fewer students are taking the gaokao, China's notoriously arduous university entrance examination, indicating rising dissatisfaction with higher education as a whole.

Last month, around 9.12 million Chinese high school students took perhaps one of the most important exams of their lives: China's national college entrance examination, as known as the gaokao. At the same time, over one million Chinese high school students decided to give up on this so-called "life changing opportunity."

Over the past five years, figures for those taking the gaokao have been declining quite dramatically, from a peak of 10.5 million in 2008 to 9.15 million in 2012, due in part to the shrinking number of young people in China. On the other hand, the number of "gaokao quitters" has steadily increased. According to the statistics released by the Ministry of Education in 2013, among the one million high school students who gave up on the gaokao, around 80 percent choose to enter the job market right away and the rest are either planning to study overseas or taking the exam next year. Unlike the young people of the 1980s or even 1990s, today, more and more are inclined to believe that knowledge is useless rather than a way to change one's destiny.

The dim job prospects facing Chinese college graduates may be one factor driving the phenomenon. This year, around 6.99 million students are graduating from institutions of higher education in China. Ahead of them is the so-called "hardest job-hunting season of all time." According to the latest statistics released by the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education, only 33.6 percent of college graduates in Beijing have signed employment contracts. In Guangdong province, both the employment rate and entry-level salaries for college graduates are lower than those of vocational students this year.

Since 1999, China has seen an unprecedented expansion in its higher education sector. By 2012, the total enrollment of higher education institutions reached 6.85 million, almost 6 times of that of 1998. As higher education in China has already transformed from system for the elite few to one for the masses, the college admission rate has increased from 4.7 percent in 1977 to 74.86 percent in 2012. The devaluation of a bachelor's degree is inevitable. Long gone are the good old days when a bachelor degree was a ticket to a job after graduation.

However, the skyrocketing number of college graduates alone does not fully explain college students' unemployment and the diminishing attractiveness of a college degree. On Sina Weibo, many users, especially current college students, are strongly defending the saying that "knowledge is useless" by sharing their frustration with their own college experiences. For example, Weibo user @世纪达摩 wrote, "The college requires us to take so many useless courses that neither the teachers nor the students take seriously." Another user, @姹紫嫣红都不是, said, "I find going to college is a waste of time in most cases. I don't think the stuff I've learned will do me any good [in my future career]."

Siyang Wang is a student at Cornell University and a contributor to Tea Leaf Nation.

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