In China, Families Bet It All on College for Their Children

4798 Wu Yiebing has been going down coal shafts practically every workday of his life, wrestling an electric drill for $500 a month in the choking dust of claustrophobic tunnels, with one goal in mind: paying for his daughter's education.

Wu Caoying studied English under her father's watchful eye in 2006. She is now a sophomore in college.
His wife, Cao Weiping, toils from dawn to sunset in orchards every day during apple season in May and June. She earns $12 a day tying little plastic bags one at a time around 3,000 young apples on trees, to protect them from insects. The rest of the year she works as a substitute store clerk, earning several dollars a day, all going toward their daughter's education.

Many families in the West sacrifice to put their children through school, saving for college educations that they hope will lead to a better life. Few efforts can compare with the heavy financial burden that millions of lower-income Chinese parents now endure as they push their children to obtain as much education as possible.

Yet a college degree no longer ensures a well-paying job, because the number of graduates in China has quadrupled in the last decade.

Mr. Wu and Mrs. Cao, who grew up in tiny villages in western China and became migrants in search of better-paying work, have scrimped their entire lives. For nearly two decades, they have lived in a cramped and drafty 200-square-foot house with a thatch roof. They have never owned a car. They do not take vacations -- they have never seen the ocean. They have skipped traditional New Year trips to their ancestral village for up to five straight years to save on bus fares and gifts, and for Mr. Wu to earn extra holiday pay in the mines. Despite their frugality, they have essentially no retirement savings.

Thanks to these sacrifices, their daughter, Wu Caoying, is now a 19-year-old college sophomore. She is among the growing millions of Chinese college students who have gone much farther than their parents could have dreamed when they were growing up. For all the hard work of Ms. Wu's father and mother, however, they aren't certain it will pay off. Their daughter is ambivalent about staying in school, where the tuition, room and board cost more than half her parents' combined annual income. A slightly above-average student, she thinks of dropping out, finding a job and earning money.

"Every time my daughter calls home, she says, 'I don't want to continue this,' " Mrs. Cao said. "And I say, 'You've got to keep studying to take care of us when we get old', and she says, 'That's too much pressure, I don't want to think about all that responsibility.' "

Ms. Wu dreams of working at a big company, but knows that many graduates end up jobless. "I think I may start my own small company," she says, while acknowledging she doesn't have the money or experience to run one.

For a rural parent in China, each year of higher education costs six to 15 months' labor, and it is hard for children from poor families to get scholarships or other government financial support. A year at the average private university in the United States similarly equals almost a year's income for the average wage earner, while an in-state public university costs about six months' pay, but financial aid is generally easier to obtain than in China. Moreover, an American family that spends half its income helping a child through college has more spending power with the other half of its income than a rural Chinese family earning less than $5,000 a year.

It isn't just the cost of college that burdens Chinese parents. They face many fees associated with sending their children to elementary, middle and high schools. Many parents also hire tutors, so their children can score high enough on entrance exams to get into college. American families that invest heavily in their children's educations can fall back on Medicare, Social Security and other social programs in their old age. Chinese citizens who bet all of their savings on their children's educations have far fewer options if their offspring are unable to find a job on graduation.

The experiences of Wu Caoying, whose family The New York Times has tracked for seven years, are a window into the expanding educational opportunities and the financial obstacles faced by families all over China.

Her parents' sacrifices to educate their daughter explain how the country has managed to leap far ahead of the United States in producing college graduates over the last decade, with eight million Chinese now getting degrees annually from universities and community colleges.

But high education costs coincide with slower growth of the Chinese economy and surging unemployment among recent college graduates. Whether young people like Ms. Wu find jobs on graduation that allow them to earn a living, much less support their parents, could test China's ability to maintain rapid economic growth and preserve political and social stability in the years ahead.

Source: The New York Times | KEITH BRADSHER
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