This weekend, an estimated 10 million Chinese high school students will take the most important test of their lives: the gaokao, the country’s rigorous annual college entrance exam. Though controversial in some circles, the gaokao has for decades offered talented students from around China a crucial, if narrow path to upward social mobility and a better life.
Yet gaokao scores aren’t quite the be-all and end-all they once were. While the test is meant to be the epitome of meritocracy — at least in theory, everyone has an equal opportunity to score well, get into a top school, and change their lives — many question whether a single exam can truly evaluate a student’s overall ability. Others point out that the gaokao’s preeminence forces teachers to teach to the test, sometimes starting as early as primary school.
Responding to public discontent with the gaokao and the overall college admissions process, the country’s education authorities have made a number of targeted reforms to the system over the years. First instituted in 2003, the Independent Freshman Admission Program (IFAP) was meant to allow top universities to directly recruit outstanding candidates who might have otherwise fallen through the cracks — for instance, those who excel in one area but struggle on comprehensive exams like the gaokao.
IFAP’s admittance requirements are high: This year, Tsinghua University only opened it to students who’d distinguished themselves in top national or international academic competitions, while other schools have expected their high school-age applicants to have patents or publication in academic journals. Nor does IFAP exempt students from the exam process altogether. Students still must pass a university-designed entrance exam and interview process as well as take the regular gaokao. Nevertheless, successful applicants enjoy significant advantages in the admissions process, including lower score thresholds for university admittance or even priority in choosing a major.
But whereas the gaokao remains widely accepted as a relatively unbiased, though flawed means of student recruitment, IFAP has been dogged by controversy over the years. According to critics, it disproportionately benefits well-off applicants at the expense of poorer students, who are less likely to have the necessary resources or know-how to get papers published or file a patent.
Curious whether IFAP really does select solely on the basis of outstanding talent, Li Zhonglu of Shenzhen University and I analyzed admissions data on 4,771 Beijing students from the Beijing College Student Panel Survey (BCSPS).
We found that more than 11% of students across 15 Beijing schools had been admitted through IFAP. Not only that, their ranks were concentrated at China’s top universities. For example, more than 17% of students at Peking University, Tsinghua University, and Renmin University of China were admitted through independent recruitment. This figure is three times higher than the other, less selective Beijing local universities surveyed.
This matters, because in China, a diploma from a top school is worth far more than one from a mid-tier institution. China drastically expanded its higher education system in 1999, and the number of students who successfully passed the gaokao shot up from 1.08 million in 1998 to 7.91 million in 2018, while the pass rate went up from 34% to 81.1%. But now that evermore students are going to university, it’s no longer enough to simply get a degree — it has to come from a top school. Slots at elite universities are therefore more valuable than ever.
We also found that about 38% of IFAP applicants would have been admitted to their universities on the basis of their gaokao results alone. They did not need the independent admission policy, nor were they the intended beneficiaries of the program. The IFAP eligibility used to be decided prior to the gaokao, allowing elite universities to cherry-pick top students.
IFAP’s real intended recipients are high school students who demonstrate remarkable potential in a specific area, but who lack the comprehensive skills to excel in the gaokao, which tests examinees’ knowledge of a wide range of subjects. Successful IFAP applicants are also given priority in major selection, allowing them to pursue their strengths once they get into university.
According to the BCSPS survey data, however, IFAP students don’t perform much better in their chosen field of study than those admitted through the gaokao alone. The in-class performance of these students ranked slightly higher than those enrolled solely on the basis of their gaokao scores, but the difference was minor. In addition, we discovered that in terms of social activities, organizational ability, and graduation planning, there wasn’t much difference between their performance and that of non-IFAP students.
In theory, IFAP students should excel above and beyond their peers in their chosen field, so why is there so little difference between them and those selected via the general gaokao?
We attribute this phenomenon to the vagueness of IFAP’s criteria. The program allows schools considerable latitude to set their own rules. This has opened the door for students from privileged families without particular talent or academic potential to manipulate the system, misusing it to improve their chances at securing an all-important slot at an elite school.
According to our study, students admitted through IFAP are more likely to come from urban families and have college-educated parents than non-IFAP students. IFAP students are more than twice as likely to come from urban backgrounds than rural ones. Other researchers have also found that, controlling for initial test scores, IFAP’s interview section favors children from families with a higher socio-economic status.
Upper-class parents are better able to arrange the kinds of extracurricular activities and achievements that help their children gain access to IFAP. Every point counts in the highly competitive world of university admissions, and these parents know that the boost from passing IFAP can be crucial when applying to an elite university.
Some even go so far as cheating to access the program. Last year, students from several top high schools were accused of plagiarizing their academic journal submissions. Others go a more direct route: taking advantage of the porous nature of IFAP criteria to bribe their way in. Cai Rongsheng, director of admissions at Renmin University, confessed in 2013 to taking hundreds of millions of yuan in bribes from prospective students including IFAP applicants. Unequal access to high-quality educational resources and the specter of corruption has tainted the independent enrollment process in the eyes of the general public.
In response to these and other incidents, in early 2019, the Ministry of Education issued a new policy meant to restrict the number of students schools can admit through IFAP. It also reiterated that schools should take a more critical look at student-submitted papers, patents, and competition scores, and announced it would penalize students who falsify materials by cancelling their IFAP eligibility or even their gaokao scores.
At the school level, many universities have already ended IFAP admissions for the humanities and social sciences, which some academics see as more liable to being gamed by opportunistic families than the hard sciences. Taken together, these measures have made it harder for students to access the IFAP system and have helped standardize independent admissions procedures across schools.
I am not overly worried that tightening the IFAP policy will harm truly elite students. Winners of reputable competitions will still be able to improve their gaokao odds. All others can still try their luck on the regular gaokao, which remains the standard for transparency and fairness in Chinese education. However, my hope is that these reforms will end the use of IFAP by middle- and upper-class families to give their children a leg up at the expense of bright students from less privileged backgrounds.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: High school seniors wait to take Tsinghua University’s IFAP exam in Beijing, June 10, 2018. IC)