The Changing Academic Tastes of China’s Young, Wealthy Students

2017-12-27 03:26:53

Next year will see the graduation of China’s first class of high school students born in the new millennium. For those who are wealthy enough and academically capable, colleges beckon in the United States or other Western countries. And more and more of today’s youngsters are choosing majors that buck the historical trend of Chinese college students abroad.

In China, those born between 2000 and 2010 are known as the “double-zero generation.” While no large-scale surveys have yet been undertaken on this generation’s academic propensities, the exclusive tribe of students enrolled in Beijing’s and Shanghai’s best international schools — the vast majority of whom hope to study in the West — are showing signs of veering off the well-trodden paths toward science, math, and engineering majors.

Instead, the freshmen-to-be are pausing longer on pages of the prospectus that once would have been rejected out of hand. Classics are regaining popularity and status, even though more and more American universities are placing the so-called STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, and math — at the core of their degree courses. Interdisciplinary programs catering to emerging or novel professions crop up with increased frequency. Curious glances are cast toward art history or geology, once the preserve of the overly romantic or less academically inclined.

Degree marketability, job placements, and starting salaries are still important considerations when choosing a major — just not as important as before. Most of the double-zero generation who have grown up not knowing scarcity or deprivation, and the hypothetical consequences of choosing the wrong college course: defaulting on student loans, living off unemployment subsidies, and the like, are just that, hypothetical. They do not resonate with today’s wealthy young people.

Part of the reason is that the parents of wealthy double-zeroes were born in the 1970s. Roughly equivalent to the so-called baby boomers in the West, this group was well-placed to take advantage of China’s early market reforms. The gaokao, or national college entrance examinations, were reinstated just in time to give them access to higher education. The overhaul of the country’s centrally planned economy overhaul spared them the mind-numbing drudgery of assembly-line jobs and a lifetime of low wages. The country’s abundance of untapped resources provided ’70s kids with the much-needed initial capital to start their own businesses.

In the eyes of many Chinese, ’70s kids had it all. But among the generation’s “big winners,” many expressed regret about what they gave up in the pursuit of wealth. I remember one father, a corporate executive, saying during a consultation at my company: “My wife and I basically spent half our lives earning money and escaping from poverty. We missed out on opportunities to follow our heart, pursue our passion, or seizing the day. Whatever job paid most was the dream job.”

In many ways, the double-zero generation is setting themselves apart from their parents. Many define themselves as ambitious and adventurous, but these two words have different meanings to their parents. Thirty years ago, jobs as technicians and bank tellers had high social currency, known as “iron rice bowls” (or even “gold-plated rice bowls”) for their steady, above-average salaries. In a society that feared poverty, job satisfaction had nothing to do with the repetitiveness of the tasks, the lack of promotion opportunities, or the fact that many low-quality jobs were staffed by highly talented individuals. As long as your work earned you enough money, it was desirable.

Some of those who struck it rich in light of China’s economic reforms later shelled out on Western educational systems for their high school-age children, like the international baccalaureate and A-Levels programs. As a result of their exposure to American and British schooling, these kids often hold to different value systems, championing holistic education, a balanced worldview, eclectic interests, and a more open attitude toward different career paths.

Traditional Chinese education is in essence intended to create social mobility. Western education, on the other hand, seeks to promote one’s individuality by identifying specialty, encouraging creativity, and nurturing practicality. Western systems don’t tell their kids to learn so as to move up the social stratosphere. Students are instead encouraged to discover themselves, push their limits, and explore all possibilities. While there are considerable merits to be argued for the Chinese curriculum, its short-sightedness lies in ideological foundations that emphasize the existence of social hierarchy — an issue that is very difficult to remedy.

For most Chinese students brought up in the domestic education system, a number of factors must be considered when choosing a college major: the school’s prestige, tuition costs, the marketability of your degree, and expected graduate salary. The wealthiest double-zero children, meanwhile, are more likely to question whether they will actually have fun learning their subject, and whether they will be “successful” in the ways defined above.

The question has prompted an increasing number of international schools to develop assessment systems designed to identify an applicant’s aptitude and compatibility with different majors and professions. However, while these tests often help to confirm or reject a given student’s existing biases, their inherent need to statistically measure the immense complexity of human education means that they give only a partial view of what a child can hope to get out of higher education.

Despite all the unpredictability, I have noticed a couple of unmistakable trends in the last couple of years. The first is that the liberal arts are making a comeback. Liberal arts colleges are arguing for a comeback of the so-called classical education and pivoting away from the current fixation on technical degrees. Chinese students have been paying attention.

The second is that STEM subjects will continue to be popular among Chinese students, though their roles may change. The demands of an increasingly technological economy — what some economists call the “fourth industrial revolution” — will sustain a strong demand for programmers and engineers for at least the next 10 years. As a result, the incentive to major in STEM subjects will continue to be strong.

STEM subjects have been popular with overseas Chinese students for many years, but recently, the attraction of dyed-in-the-wool STEM courses is being rivaled by a more humanistic belief in the value of art itself. Subjects like literature, philosophy, and fine arts give us the human touch that we need to offset the side effects of automation and rapid technological advancement; feelings of coldness and isolation, for instance. More and more of the double-zero generation, the wealthiest of which will likely be governing China in 20 or 30 years, are getting wise to a new world.

Editor: Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A college entrance examination enrollment consultation meeting in Ji Nan, Shan Dong provience, July.25th, 2016. Yu Ning/VCG)