Is a college degree worthless in today’s China?

Alia | September 3rd, 2013 - 6:20 am

When her friends are ready to start their exciting journey in colleges, 19-year-old Ling Ling from a small Sichuan village is still trying very hard to get enough money to cover her tuition fees. Why? Not because her family is poor or anything, but because, according to her father, “a college education is useless; and a college degree is a bad investment.”

Her father, who grew up as a farmer, completed only elementary school. With a small business, he worked his way to Chengdu, one of the two most developed cities in Sichuan, where he settled his family, bought an apartment and successfully managed a small store of his own. In a word, he is a living example of how a man can live a decent life in China without a college degree.

1He is perfectly fine to help Ling Ling out financially if she wants to start her own business, but not if she wants to go to college. To him, an investment of several thousands of yuan in a college degree that may or may not lead to a secure job in the future means several thousands of yuan wasted. Even the degree does lead to a job. The average salary of a fresh graduate is about RMB 2000 to 3000 yuan in Chengdu, no more than someone who works as a migrant worker since high school. In this case, a college degree only means four years of time wasted.

Ling Ling’s father has his own way of calculating the value of a college education: “A job is a good job as long as it pays well. Even collecting and selling waste is better than getting a college degree. Those who collect and sell waste in our community can earn RMB 20,000 to 30,000 yuan per year. That’s a number many college graduates aren’t able to get.” 

Ling Ling’s story ignites heated debates among Chinese netizens about the value of a college education. Many agreed with her father, saying that in today’s China, a college is more like a place for entertainment to compensate for the previous 12 years of rigid learning than for knowledge, and that a college degree isn’t the only way leading to a successful career. For example, one netizen XX的读后感 commented: “Colleges and universities in China are very pragmatic. They serve as stepping stones to a good job, not as a place to offer true education.”

Others, however, pointed out that the purpose of a college education shouldn’t be landing a well-paid job. The 4 years of life in college should be the most unforgettable period of one’s youth to learn knowledge, broaden horizon, and get to know people who may become life-long friends. Like netizen darling艾艳儿 commented: “A college education offers much more than knowledge. It’s a journey of constant growth and personal enhancement.”

College graduates rushed to hand in resumes at a job fair

College graduates rushed to hand in resumes at a job fair

The reasoning of Ling Ling’s father actually echoes a growingly popular sentiment in today’s China that a college education is useless because success is measured by monetary values. Happiness in life equals to a secure job that pays well plus an apartment clear of mortgage.

This is not the first time when such sentiment is popular among the Chinese. During the Cultural Revolution, many intellectuals and professors were labeled as “anti-revolutionary” evils who used their knowledge to deceive the people and the Party. Many students at the time learned nothing but communist theories and Mao’s teachings. The consensus was that the people, with or without proper education, are all part of the revolution.

The second peak came shortly after Deng Xiaoping’s opening-up policy was put to effect. Many believed that Deng’s “white cat, black cat” theory is the start of the “money is king” belief in China. A popular saying at the time goes “Those who build atom bombs are worse off than those who sell tea eggs.” 

Now seems to be the third wave of a general loss of faith in education. And the reason is simple. As China’s expanding colleges and universities generating more and more graduates, the job market is getting worse and worse, especially during an economic slowdown. Take 2013 for instance, a record-high 6.99 million fresh graduates are on the market. But in Beijing, the home of many of the country’s top universities, only 33.6% fresh graduates have signed up for employment as of May 10.

Ling Ling and her father are still in negotiation. But China’s problem is much bigger than a girl’s denied college dream. Like one netizen 黎人2392980957 pointed out:

“Ling Ling’s dad speaks the minds of many Chinese parents. Reasons are many: 1) Our country’s economic development is still largely driven by labor and investments, not by knowledge, technology or R&D; 2) China’s higher education still have a lot of issues and problems, failing to meet the needs of a booming economy. The only solution is to reform our higher education system and to make a college degree a value investment.”


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  15. [...] Is a college degree worthless in today's China? | Offbeat China [...]

  16. Bob says:

    Same problem here in Australia, many graduates in IT, Accounting, Liberal Arts & Business management literally have NO FURTURE apart from getting work at 7/11 stores , jobs as retails assistants or flipping burgers at MACCAs.
    There has been too many Uni grads over the last 20′yrs with to much emphasis on younger generation wanting an easy life on the public service without getting their hands dirty.
    Technical trades are the way to go but with many trades people coming in from india, china or the philipines their will be a ready made oversupply of cheap labour, either its a no win situation welcome to the world of globalization and cheap labour.

  17. [...] Is a college degree worthless in today’s China? from Offbeat China [...]

  18. XiaoXiong says:

    If Ling had been a boy, her father would have paid for college without a second thought.

  19. [...] Ling’s father was joined by netizens who also question the value of a college degree in today’s China. See Alia at Offbeat [...]

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