In the first decade of the 21st century, declining rural student enrollment figures at the country’s top universities became a source of widespread concern in China. As fears grew that the barriers to class mobility were becoming too high, the Ministry of Education launched a series of affirmative action policies targeting the problem.
For a time these policies seemed to work, even if the current system continues to benefit the wealthy and urban. Often overlooked, however, were the challenges rural students faced once they made it to university.
This long-simmering issue finally boiled over this summer, as college students from rural areas took to social media sites like Douban to commiserate about the difficulties they face integrating into top universities. As they see it, rural students perform worse academically than their urban peers; only know how to study, not socialize; and lack self-confidence. Many embraced a new identity: “exam experts from small towns,” a reference to the extreme cramming methods they used to level the playing field with students from larger cities.
But do these “exam experts” really perform worse in less-regimented university environments than their urban peers? Since 2013, I’ve conducted a longitudinal study on the social integration of rural students at four selective research-intensive universities on the Chinese mainland, and my findings suggest their situation is not quite as bleak as it may seem.
I don’t mean to say rural students face no challenges, but on the whole, their academic performance does not differ substantially from their urban peers. And many do actually manage to establish themselves in the middle class after graduation. Part of the reason may be their work ethic: Among freshmen, I found that rural and small-town students spent less time playing video games on weekdays and more time studying or doing lab work on weekends.
This was corroborated in interviews I conducted with roughly 100 students. Most rural and small-town students agreed they were “the same as urban students” in terms of their academic ability. In other words, the “exam expert from small towns” label doesn’t really refer to an objective difference in academic ability. It’s a form of self-mockery adopted by marginalized students tired of being crammed into a redemption narrative that privileges study and academic success as engines of class mobility over the opportunity to become well-rounded individuals. They may be moving up in the world, but they’re paying a heavy psychological price.
Zhou Shen, a student at a top university in the southern city of Guangzhou, repeatedly mentioned that his social skills were “not good enough,” that his circle of friends was “very small,” and that his college life was “incomplete.” Li Yi, a student at a selective university in Shanghai, said in an interview that he often felt his college life was lacking. All he could do was “be a high scorer and feel good about it.”
The data bears their stories out. Among students from rural areas and small towns, both the proportion of freshmen participating in various types of student organizations and the proportion of sophomores becoming student leaders were significantly lower than those from urban areas.
Among freshmen, rural and small-town students were more self-deprecating and less likely to praise their personal social skills, which affected their participation in extracurricular activities. For example, a rural student in the central city of Wuhan mentioned his experience running for the student union. “At the time, I thought it would be better if I was more confident,” he said. “Just go up, write your name on the blackboard, and then speak, say what you think. But I don’t have kind of that self-confidence. I don’t think I can do anything. Unlike my classmates from the city, who have all kinds of talents and abilities, I don’t. I talked to myself about whether to try or not, and while I was hesitating, another classmate went up, and I gave up.”
Many of the difficulties faced by rural students can’t be attributed to their abilities, but to what scholars call cultural capital. Prior knowledge of academia, which is often acquired or transmitted within families and schools, plays a critical role in a student’s ability to succeed in university. It can manifest as practical knowledge about why, when, where, and how to learn, or even something as simple as understanding the culture that pervades a particular institution and how to conform. Parents of rural students are typically less likely or able to transmit the knowledge needed to navigate the elite milieu found at the country’s best higher education institutions.
The process of upward mobility requires individuals to integrate into the culture of the new class. Higher education institutions are often regarded as “gatekeepers” of the elite, where students are imbued with the cultural norms of the middle and upper classes. When students from lower socioeconomic strata enter top higher education institutions, they are prone to psychological and emotional distress, including anxiety and depression. In an unfamiliar environment, many feel they don’t belong.
Over the first two years I knew Wu Jie, a student in Wuhan, she made almost no changes to her wardrobe, preferring to stick with blue jeans and crew-neck T-shirts. She said she only cared about her studies and wasn’t interested in adapting her style to better fit in with the other students. When I asked whether she felt like she was becoming a member of the urban or middle classes, she broke down in tears. She’d never be one of “them,” she said.
“Social mobility” is usually taken for granted as being positive for the socially mobile individual, especially economically. But the stories of rural and small-town youth tell us that we should reassess individuals’ experiences of social mobility to take into account its subjective, noneconomic, and emotional dimensions.
The positive significance of upward social mobility itself may be beyond doubt, but only describing it as an economic phenomenon blinds us to its broader meaning. If we want to promote equity in higher education, we should not only pay attention to enrollment opportunities, but also to promoting equal university experiences among different social groups.
That means encouraging university administrators to provide rural students with more tailored cultural orientation programs, and to help students overcome the cultural barriers they face in participating in social and cultural activities on campus. Long term, rural schools must be strengthened to create opportunities for students to expand their learning beyond the classroom — in libraries, cultural centers, and museums.
As the sociologist Li Lulu has argued, social stratification is becoming more salient in China, and basic class boundaries are increasingly clear. People in societies with rigid class hierarchies may be more likely to experience status anxiety and cultural alienation when they travel from one class to another. Inequality between urban and rural areas is the ultimate reason for the popularity of the “exam expert” label — and addressing it is the only way to solve the real problems faced by China’s top rural students.
The author has used pseudonyms to protect the privacy of survey participants.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Fu Xiaofan/Sixth Tone)