In China's developed urban areas, up to 80 percent of students are accepted into universities. However, only 3 percent of poor rural students in China who start first grade will enroll in a university. Nearly all students in large urban cities attend academic high school. Yet only 25 percent of poor rural students who start elementary school go on to academic high school. Perhaps most troubling, a REAP survey conducted in rural Shaanxi suggests that 25 percent of students drop out before completing junior high, part of compulsory education in China.
The extraordinary gap in educational attainment between rural and urban China is cause for concern. This gap suggests that the rural poor continue to be left out of China’s unfolding economic story. Factory jobs will soon disappear as jobs begin requiring higher order skills in subjects such as English and mathematics. As a credential, a junior high and even high school diploma will become essential for joining China’s workforce. Moreover, 66 percent of children are growing up in rural areas. If they do not have access to education, a large portion of China’s society will find themselves locked out of the labor market in coming years. This prospect has grave implications for future economic growth and social stability.
Why aren’t kids staying in school? First, public high school tuition in China is not just expensive; it is the highest in the world. For poor families, the costs of education are prohibitive. Second, rising wages throughout the country and increased mobility tempt poor students to leave school early to join the unskilled labor force. Third, the rural poor may find themselves unable to participate in China’s competitive educational system. Their poor academic performance, combined with the difficulty of catching up in a highly tracked and examination-centered system, means that many students simply stop trying.
Although keeping kids in school is a simple goal, deciding what is scalable, when to intervene, and what is cost-effective is a complex challenge. Fortunately, REAP is tackling these very questions. For example, we evaluated a financial aid program for the poorest students at four major Chinese universities. We discovered that even the poorest students already had access to financial aid by the time they reached college.
Through our work, we have learned that the real need for aid comes earlier, starting in the years preceding college. We are now experimenting with various projects designed to keep low-income, high-performance students in school:
REAP’s work has demonstrated that cost-effective and easily implementable programs can have enormous effects. Our conditional cash transfer program, for example, reduced dropout rates by 60% among junior high students. As we maintain close connections with local governments, REAP is encouraged that policy changes may not be too far in the future.
The “Keeping Kids in School” program continues to seek scalable and creative solutions to increase academic attainment among rural students. Our hope is that rural youth may be prepared to excel in China’s rapidly modernizing society. This is a lofty goal, and one that we do not reach for alone. REAP thrives on partnerships with other organizations, combining research expertise with on-the-ground implementation.
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