Giving Up On "Gaokao"


On June 7th and 8th, 9.12 million Chinese high school students took China’s National Higher Education Entrance Exam, better known as gaokao. At the same time, over one million high school students decided to skip out on this exam that was previously believed to be a life-changing opportunity.

Over the past five years, the number of students taking gaokao has declined dramatically, from the peak of 10.5 million in 2008 to 9.15 million in 2012. Among the one million high students who gave up on the exam this year, 80% choose to work right away, while the rest plan to study overseas or to take the exam next year.

Dim job prospects facing Chinese college graduates are a primary cause. According to the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education, only 33.6% 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.

Since 1999, China has witnessed an unprecedented expansion in its higher education sector. By 2012, total enrollment in higher education institutions reached 6.85 million, almost six times the total in1998. Because higher education in China has already been transformed from an elitist to a mass system (the college admission rate has increased from 4.7% in 1977 to 74.86% in 2012), the devaluation of the bachelor’s degree was inevitable. Long gone are the days when only a bachelor’s degree can secure a job after graduation.

Furthermore, the college experience is discouraging for many. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging service, many users express their frustrations about the college academic experience. @世纪达摩 wrote:“The college requires us to take so many useless courses that neither the teachers nor the students take them seriously.” @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 learned will do any good (for my future career).” Many students believe compulsory courses like “Marxist Philosophy” and “Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought” are useful but time-consuming. Companies share in these complaints, claiming difficulty in finding graduates equipped with professional skills or practical knowledge.

Furthermore, many believe that China’s employment market is “increasingly skewed to the well-connected and the well-born,” especially when it comes to prestigious jobs with state-owned enterprises or in civil service where the use of guanxi–connections–is believed to be prevalent. Many students from poor or rural families become members of “ant tribes” for the first few years after graduation. Ant tribes is a Chinese phrase used to describe groups of young Chinese college graduates who work unstable and low-paying jobs (usually earning less than $340 per month) while living together in shared rooms on the outskirts of major cities. These conditions help explain why 80% of the students who give up on gaokao come from rural areas. For rural families, it’s less appealing to send their children to college if they’re likely to become “ant tribe” members who can barely support themselves, let alone their families.

According to a recent study conducted by the Shanghai Academy of Educational Science, approximately 94 million college graduates will enter the job market between 2010 and 2020. However, only 46 million white-collar jobs are expected to open, meaning nearly half of those college graduates will become blue-collar workers. For all these reasons, giving up on gaokao and skipping college to accumulate more work experience may not be a bad move after all.