Rural Chinese students start behind but catch up

Socio-economic disadvantages are most prominent in the first two years of university, study finds

November 7, 2020
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A new study on China’s rural-urban gap in academic performance shows that students from the Chinese countryside who make it to elite universities usually catch up with their city-dwelling peers.

The study, published in Higher Education Research & Development, showed that rural students started with lower grades in almost all fields: arts, humanities, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. The only exception was in the social sciences. And while rural students tended to perform worse than their peers during their first and second years, they did seem to compensate for it by the time they graduated.

The paper’s author, Kai Zhao, a visiting researcher at the Center for Postsecondary Success at Florida State University, analysed questionnaires by 3,500 students at a top institution in Beijing and drew on previous studies of the socio-economic divide among Chinese students.  

Dr Zhao’s research showed that rural students were far more likely to be the first generation of their family to attend university (84 per cent v 27 per cent) and to come from a low socio-economic background (85 per cent v 31 per cent). They were also more likely to be ethnic minorities (17 per cent v 9 per cent) and less likely to have attended “key-point”, or high-quality, high schools (73 per cent v 90 per cent).

The reasons for their falling behind in their first two years of study depended on their chosen field.

The lag in STEM was likely because of the lack of “cumulative and sequential” knowledge and “higher levels of academic preparation” afforded to urban counterparts, who may have received better secondary schooling.

Meanwhile, in the arts and humanities, rural students could lack the “cultural capital” of urban students.

Dr Zhao’s research also found differences in college life outside the classroom. Rural students spent more time working part-time jobs for financial reasons, while urban students spent more time engaging with faculty.

The latter imbalance could be a result of a lack of social awareness about the need for networking in urban environments.

“It may be because rural students do not recognise the importance and benefits of interacting with faculty, or they do not feel as comfortable as urban peers to do so,” he wrote, adding that parents who had not attended universities themselves may not be able to inform their children on “what’s important at college”.

Dr Zhao concluded that the gap could be “largely attributed to differences in pre-college characteristics”, a hypothesis backed up by the fact that the rural students’ grades did improve by their third and fourth years.

The paper drew a comparison with American colleges, where many students live with friends and socialise off campus. In China, most students live in assigned dormitories for their entire undergraduate degrees, which helps “rural students gradually catch up with their urban counterparts in terms of cognitive and non-cognitive abilities”.

The Chinese government has implemented various policies to improve equality in admissions. For example, the authorities have responded publicly to criticisms of the gao kao, the country’s notoriously tough college entrance exam, which had been said to favour more privileged students.

Admissions quotas, based on the “hukou”, or household registration system, have also come under fire for giving advantages to urban students. 

But Dr Zhao wrote that “access to college only represents the first step”.

Even once rural students are enrolled, they may find it hard to integrate socially to “urban, middle-class culture”.

Dr Zhao also added a caveat: his study was based on one elite institution in the capital, which would only have admitted the very top students. “The equalisation effect may be limited to the few fortunate rural students who successfully secure a place in universities,” he said.

The broader picture was that “China’s redistributive policies generally favour large cities over small cities; urban areas over rural areas”.

He urged educators to provide more targeted help for rural students, whether it meant tutoring, advising or helping them achieve “intellectual and social growth”.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com 

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