Reflections on the NYT article on education in China

The New York Times recently published a very nice article on the challenges that a rural family in China faced as it sought an education for its daughter:

I liked the article, and commend it to everyone’s attention.  That said, reading the article inspired me to think about the importance of assessing the situation in a comparative context.

In particular, the article would benefit from some comparative context, and perhaps some reflection on inequities in access to education here in the United States. Not to say that the situation in China is great, but we should keep in mind that we have serious problems in terms of access here as well. In other words, I don’t have any specific critiques or complaints about the content of the article, but want to put it into some perspective.

Specifically, the article correctly identifies many of the challenges that poor families in China face as they pursue an education for their children, but fails to note that in some form or another, there are similar or even more serious problems here.

As difficult as it is for someone from a poor family to attend a top university in China, given the enormous inequities in the quality of primary and secondary education in the United States, opportunities for tertiary education are probably even more uneven.

The educational system in China has many problems, which almost anyone in China will be happy to tell you about, but one thing it does remarkably well at the primary and secondary level is providing a solid foundation in math, reading, and writing that at least makes it possible for a family like the one described here to entertain a realistic hope for a college education for their child. And as problematic as the examination system is, it is much more transparent than the peculiar and opaque practices of private universities here. While it is true that wealthy parents can buy tutoring that will yield some improvement their children’s scores on the exams, if the child is a dud, it is probably easier for the parents to buy a place for them at an Ivy League or other elite private university (and believe me, that is possible) than somehow turn them into successful exam takers. Indeed, in China, wealthy families with debauched, lazy or dim offspring generally send them abroad to obscure private schools with flexible admissions criteria rather than waste their time and money trying to prepare them for the exams.

How many families in the United States of modest means and background like the ones described in the article would even dare to hope for a college education for their child? In my experience traveling in China for the last twenty years and meeting people from all walks of life, even middle school graduates generally have levels of numeracy and literacy comparable to high school and frankly even many college graduates here. When I taught undergraduates last summer at Shanghai Jiaotong University, one of China’s top universities, I was pleasantly surprised by how many of them were from poor, rural families in interior provinces. At the end of the class, several of them described their plans for their trips home for summer break, and many of them involved long train rides (in one case, three days to Xinjiang) and then long bus rides back to their villages.

While the article notes that students at elite institutions in China are more likely to come from relatively well-off families, according to research that I have participated in, and my own experience, the share of students at elite institutions in China who are first-generation college students and/or from poor families is much, much higher than at the elite privates in the United States, and perhaps even at some elite public institutions. As an aside, I am proud that relative to other elite research universities in the US, the UC system does have an excellent record with respect to the proportions of students from low-income families, or who are first-generation college students. Last time I checked, my alma mater, Caltech, also had the highest proportion of undergraduate students who were Pell Grant recipients (generally a marker of low-income) of any of the elite privates.

In research by James Lee, Liang Chen, and other members of our research group that I helped out with that was published last year in one of China’s top journals and generated considerable discussion, it was clear that well into the 1990s, the share of students at Peking University and Suzhou University who were from working-class or farming origin families was much higher than the share of students at elite privates in the United States who were from low-income families.

As for the expenses that the article notes, what about the private and especially for-profit educational institutions here in the U.S. that leave their students saddled with loan debt, and hand them a diploma that doesn’t do anything for their job prospects? And what of the seemingly unlimited amounts of time and money that middle- and high-income families in the United States are willing to spend on tutoring, enrichment, and other activities that will increase their offspring’s chances of getting in to the ‘right’ college?

My main point is to not to suggest that things in China aren’t as problematic as the article suggests – the problems are real – but to suggest we keep some perspective and keep in mind that there are similarly serious problems here in the United States with regard to quality of education, and socioeconomic differences in access to higher education.