"If you find a career you really like, you will never work a day in your life," is a saying we often tell American students. People who love their job are fortunate. You go to work because it is something you really enjoy, and not just a paycheck. I am one of those fortunate people.
So I am particularly sensitive when I am in front of a group of about 40 students assembled here in China in the evening to hear about the American education system.
"We want to follow our dreams," a girl calls out. Others nod their heads in agreement. As they describe their academic pathway, I gain a new appreciation for ours.
The gao kao, the college-entrance exam is their biggest hurdle. If they score super high, they can go to a Rank I school. Lower scores mean lower ranked schools. And there is also assortment by field. Their score may allow them into some programs, but not others. Most begin university study in a field that they think they might like to work, but it also involves a lot of "luck." The same score the previous or following year might permit different opportunities at different universities. And universities are also allowed to impose additional entrance tests to select for specific skills. So ask a Chinese student what they will do in life and they will not give the American student’s dream plan, but say "whatever fate provides."
Once they enter a university in China, they must graduate in four years with their classmates. If they want to change major, they must do it within the first semesters and double-time their course work to catch up — there is no extra year to finish late because you changed major. That was the context of this question: I am stuck studying engineering when I now know I want to be a computer programmer, and it is too late to change. What can I do, to "follow my dreams?"
Across America, an average college student takes five and a half years to finish a bachelor’s degree. Six-out-of-ten college students change majors at least once. That is a luxury to these kids in China who are locked in to the opportunity that their score and university openings first provided.
In America, we have a surplus of educational opportunities. Without a high score or alumni parents, you may not get into Harvard or Princeton. But as long as you have a diploma, credit card and a heartbeat, you can go to college and continue being a "professional student" until your money runs out.
But for all of its massive expansion, China still does not have enough university seats for its capable high school graduates. The gao kao scores sort the best students by merit. They must then move through college in four years to make room for the next cohort. Anyone who would take a fifth year would deny a seat to the next generation.
In 2010, 10 million students sat for the gao kao and about 6 million, or 60 percent, passed. The number of students graduating high school is going down and three weeks ago, slightly under 9,150,000 took the test and nearly 75 percent passed and can enter college. As the graduating population continues to drop, the universities will be able to take more of the students. And when they go over-the-top and have the capacity to take more than apply, then students can change majors and have another year to finish.
How did I answer the girl who expressed the desire of her many classmates to "follow her dreams"?
There is no good answer for them. Most of them know their grandparents had very little chance to go to college. When I lectured at East China Normal in 1993, China had few universities and only the top few percent could go to the university. Then in their parent’s generation, there still was limited capacity, and fewer than half of those who wanted to go to college could.
"I know that you are impatient, but you are at this point in your country’s history." I could only hope for them that their children would be able to have the academic time to explore and find the job they loved so much that it would not seem like work. At least China is growing in the right direction.
I did not tell them that back in the United States, there are legislators who want to end any support for students who study more than four years. That is a move in the wrong direction.