The college year is about to end in China. Groups of graduating students are assembling in their caps and gowns for pictures. But there will be no all-campus graduation ceremony that all seniors attend. -Nor any faculty in colorful regalia. Instead, students are assembling in clusters on the steps in front of their major’s building. For the last four years, they have been classmates or “tong xue.” Being classmates will be very special for this group of students throughout the rest of their life.
Four years ago, they had just passed the gao kao test and applied for the highest opportunity that their score would allow. Ultimately they arrive at their university with other high school graduates of identical age and similar academic qualifications. And they began living together in a dormitory, in a cluster of rooms, six or eight students to a room, and all the same major. This is their new family for the next four years.
Similar to American middle school students who travel as a group class-to-class, Chinese college students spend all four years attending the same classes together. Their dormitory room is bunk-to-bunk with no desks, so they go to empty classrooms and study together at night. They help each other study, classmates providing the support that parents provided at home during their K-12 years.
With this graduation comes a break-up of a four year relationship of best friends. Some may take jobs in the developed cities. Others may go overseas for graduate work. But they all pledge to not forget each other, similar to some American students in fraternities and sororities. They will have classmate reunions. And when they travel for the holidays throughout the year, there is often a “classmate” in a distant city who will greet and host them.
In China, human relationships are built on “guanxi,” a set of complex relationships that allow a people to survive and thrive in the midst of a huge population of strangers. “Guanxi” can be described as mutual obligation, shared responsibility, duty to relative or teachers or friends, or you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours. But “guanxi” makes for lifetime friendships and efficient business arrangements. Of course it starts with family, but the “networking” of four years of living and studying together at school is very valuable in Chinese life. The advantage of American students attending the “ivy league colleges” is that they also form business “networks.” But “networking” pales in comparison with the commitment and devotion of being “classmates” in China.
The importance of being classmates for four years has implications for the future of higher education in China. As I converse with many students and colleagues across this massive and complex country, it is obvious that many are in lifetime jobs that they do not necessarily enjoy. This of course occurs in America too—you have to put food on the table. But 60-to-75 percent of American college students change majors at least once, and as a result take an average of five-and-a-half years to complete college.
Chinese students do not yet have that luxury. Their options narrow as their gao kao score limits the universities and the programs that will accept them. While there is no reason to think that they would have any lower desire to change majors than Western students do, that is currently impossible. To stay a fifth year would exclude an incoming freshman because Chinese university capacity is limited. The job you enter will not so much be the vocation you select as it will be the opportunity that opens up.
Ask a Western student what they plan to do and they will give a specific goal. Ask a Chinese student about their future plans and they will say “whatever opportunity comes along.”
Each year, the number of high school graduates who sit for the gao kao drops slightly as their young population shrinks. In 2015, 9.42 million sat for the exam. This year it dropped to 9.4. With about 7.5 million freshman seats in universities, there will come a day when the number of entering students will be less than university capacity and theoretically, a student could then change majors, as Western students do. But that is unlikely to become common in China, because that would mean leaving behind your “classmates,” your second family.