College Hopefuls from the Countryside Face Hurdles

Liu Xiaome, 33, came to Beijing nine years ago from Anhui province. Today she works as a maid cleaning homes for 10 yuan, or about $1.50, per hour. Liu’s son is back home in the care of her mother and older sister. “I don’t need a big sum," says Liu, but "I want to be able to pay tuition so my son can go to a university so his life won’t be as hard as mine. I am very hopeful.”

During the Qing Dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1912, peasant families would often devote the energies of their smartest son entirely to study. Their hope was that he would pass the state officials' exam, a grueling test that required years of preparation, and thereby be admitted to the ruling gentry class, a status that afforded special rights and privileges. Today parents still see study as the best way off the farm, though this time the goal is to send their child to a university, preferably in Beijing.

To pay for this education, many parents have migrated to the capital to find work. The average annual income in China’s cities is about three times that of the countryside, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency.

For those parents who have not made the trek to the city, tuition fees are often beyond reach. Enrollment costs can range anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 yuan, or about $700 to $1,400 per semester. In addition, universities in Beijing impose quotas on how many students they will accept from each province. On June 7, a record 10.5 million applicants took China’s college entrance exam, making it the largest single examination of its kind, according to Xinhua. About 57 percent of those who take the exam will be accepted.

“It is not very difficult for people from Beijing to go to the university, but it is very difficult for people who are not from Beijing,” says Dai Jianping, 24, who is originally from a rural village in Jiangxi province but is now a recent graduate of the Beijing Language and Culture University.

"Students from the city," says Guo Binhua, 26, a pupil at Beijing’s China University of Petroleum, "can get support from their parents or the parents can get a job for their children. But I must rely on myself, [so] I feel more pressure.”

For those who have made it there is also a sense of bitter pride.

“My parents have one acre of land, they grow rice," says Guo. "They use just their hands, not the machines. [They] worked for 15 years to send me to the university."

“People like me, we are not waiting to go back to the countryside because it is very backward,” adds Dai, the recent graduate.