Over one million middle school students in rural China drop out every year. Though the reasons for dropping out are clear, it is difficult to find any way to improve.
Education, especially at the secondary school stage, is considered the most important driver of a country’s economic development. Since World War II, many countries have transitioned from middle-income to high-income countries, and secondary school enrollment rates have increased alongside economic development. However, this is not so for China. Especially in rural China, the proportion of students in impoverished areas that complete secondary school is very low, with less than 40% of students attending high school. In cities, the percentage is 90%.
Although high school is very important, it still does not fall within the category of compulsory education in China. The more serious problem is that the dropout rate of rural Chinese students is also extremely high. The Rural Education Action Program (REAP) research team understands that the dropout rate for middle school students in rural China is much higher than official statistics show.
We have engaged in numerous research projects related to the rural middle school student dropout problem. The results of five large-scale randomized controlled trials conducted at 262 middle schools across 3 provinces, show that the problem is clearly getting worse. Over the past five years, we have interviewed a total of 18,474 middle school students across different grades. In September, we first interviewed students who had just started middle school. 10 months later, in June of the next year, we followed up. Although we frequently encountered challenges, we were able to confirm the whereabouts of every student. The results of the five studies revealed high dropout rates.
Between the start of the first and second semesters, 4%-13% of students dropped out; between the start of the second and third semesters, 9%; and before graduation a further 4%-9% of students dropped out. Using these statistics, we can estimate the average middle school student dropout rate to be 24%, with an upper bound of 31%. Thus, the average dropout rate for all the areas in our study is estimated to be over 18%. This is much higher than the most recent official middle school dropout rate—2.6%—published by the Chinese government.
Based on our research, over one million rural middle school students in China drop out every year. With their current education, once China enters the next level of development in which wages and the requirements of workers are both higher, they will inevitably lack competitive power in the job market.
Why do middle school students drop out? REAP is the first organization to use progressive quantitative economic tools to conduct an analysis of this issue. Of REAP's five research programs related to middle school drop out, four explored the factors that influence school drop out. These four programs reached consistent conclusions. Students that drop out from school often have four characteristics: poor academic performance, male sex, comparatively older, and poor conditions at home. Additionally, our research also found that middle school students with emotional problems were more likely to drop out of school.
Middle school drop out is a big problem. The majority of students that drop out do not return to school. Their math, Chinese, English, history, and computer skills are very poor.
We conducted further one-on-one interviews to better understand the specific factors influencing middle school students' education. We deduced the following notes from our recording tapes and notes.
The cost of schooling is an important reason behind why students drop out. “My parents have to work hard in order to pay for my schooling, and because of my low academic performance, attending school is a waste of money. If I don’t study and go to work, even if I cannot earn that much, I will at least be able to support myself.”
Some students expressed concern over uncertain costs and said that it was their choice to drop out of school despite the wishes of their family. Looking at our analysis, it could be that low performing students think that the benefits of continuing to attend school are rather low. They say, “even if I could get a scholarship to cover all the expenses, it is still very difficult to attend high school. My academic performance is too poor and attending high school is a waste of money, so the best course of action is to find work and earn some money.”
The majority of students think that academic performance is the most important reason their classmates choose to drop out. Some students with decent academic performance think the problem lies in the poor quality of the school, saying “I am not happy at this school. The teacher does not care about me at all. No one takes education seriously. No one should attend this school.”
Additionally, we discovered that middle school students also face emotional pressure that could lead them to feel compelled to drop out of school. “I regret the path I chose that day. However, at the same time, I did not know that the work I would get after dropping out would be this bad.”
In reality, the main factors leading students to impulsively drop out of school are the emotional pressures and anxiety of attending school. This kind of pressure comes from many places, including the indifferent attitude of teachers, prejudice and playground bullying of classmates, friends urging friends to drop out, a lack of parental guidance, etc.
Our research shows that the reasons behind why middle school students drop out are already clearly developed. Furthermore, because rural parents often have no choice but to part from their children, it is difficult to overcome these obstacles. For the time being, there remains a shortage of quick effective solutions, however these problems are solved. However, if decisive measures are not adopted now, this problem will continue, ultimately leading to human capital shortages in China’s future development that will be difficult to recover from.
About this series:
REAP co-directors Scott Rozelle and Linxiu Zhang wrote a ten-part series for Caixin Magazine titled, "Inequality 2030: Glimmering Hope in China in a Future Facing Extreme Despair." See below for more columns in this series:
> Column 1: Why We Need to Worry About Inequality
> Column 2: China's Inequality Starts During the First 1,000 Days
> Column 3: Behind Before They Start - The Preschool Years (Part 1)
> Column 4: Behind Before They Start - The Preschool Years (Part 2)
> Column 5: How to Cure China's Largest Epidemic
> Column 6: A Tale of Two Travesties
>Columns 7 & 8: China's Widest Divide
> Column 9: China's Most Vulnerable Children
> Column 10: Why Drop Out?
> Column 11: The Problem with Vocational Education
> Column 12: Reforming China's Vocational Schools (in Chinese)