‘Narrowest margins’ in gao kao ‘shape Chinese students’ lives’

Major survey is first to link entrance scores, elite universities and salary

February 20, 2021
Man crawling through a narrow cave
Source: iStock

Scoring just above or below a “cut-off point” in the gao kao, China’s nationwide college entrance exam, can greatly affect a student’s chance of getting into a top university and salary prospects even years later, according to new research.

The findings, in a working paper published this month by the US National Bureau of Economic Research, suggest “great room for improvement” in an admissions system that is rigid and stressful and may not encourage the best learning experiences once students arrive at university.

The research, by Ruixue Jia of the University of California, San Diego and Hongbin Li of Stanford University, is the first known study to match two of the most important features of Chinese higher education – the gao kao and the state-ordained university hierarchy – with job prospects. 

The report is based on five years of surveying, conducted on 40,000 graduates from 90 higher education institutions. They were asked about their personal and family backgrounds, exam scores, performance while at university and job outcomes. 

The report found that even tiny variations in test scores could change one’s course in life. The difference of one point above or below a “cut-off” – out of the gao kao’s total 750 points – can affect a student’s chance at entering an elite institution by 15 per cent.

That is significant, given that elite education remains “out of reach for most Chinese students”, with only 5 per cent of gao kao takers entering the top 100 universities. Chinese youth are keenly aware that employers put a heavy weight on their alma mater’s ranking, and responded in a survey that it was their top hurdle in job-hunting.

“The gao kao determines everything – which college, which major, which city, which salary,” Professor Li, a senior fellow in the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, told Times Higher Education. “It’s really high stakes.”

Those who score just above the cut-off for entering elite universities earn 5.2 to 9.7 per cent more in their first job than those who miss it. Salary discrepancies can be even greater in the long run. “Those who enter elite colleges by the narrowest margins are indeed rewarded,” the authors write, adding that the system has long been linked with heavy parental pressure for children to perform.

Students who make it over the cut-off generally start from a more privileged position. They are more likely to have parents who are university educated and Chinese Communist Party members. They also come from high schools where peers have better scores.

However, the study finds no evidence that these students “achieve more in college”, defining “achievement” using metrics such as English fluency, computer skills and professional certificates.

This may be due to the “hard in, easy out” nature of Chinese universities, which have unusually low drop-out rates of 1 to 3 per cent. Another reason may be that the government prefers a system that guarantees almost everyone a diploma, for reasons of “social stability”.

Professor Li said that the Chinese system was the opposite of the US, where schooling is relatively relaxed but students strive academically once at university. “In China, early schooling is really difficult. Kids study hard for 12 years, then are tested for one day. Once they get into college, they think: ‘I’m so relieved,’ and stop pushing,” he said.

Professor Li admitted that “it will be hard to reform” the Chinese system. Despite the difficulty of the gao kao, “Chinese people think exams are fair and trust the system,” he said. “If you change to something more flexible, many people may think it will only benefit privileged families.”


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