Career Advancement for Professionals
November 1, 1999

In China, School Fees Keep Many Children Away

Issue in Depth
  • 50 Years of Communism in China


  • China from Microsoft Encarta Concise Encyclopedia


  • China's Future

    LIJIAGOU, China -- At first glance, Hong Mei, a willowy 12-year-old in a long floral skirt and hoop earrings, seems a beacon of color and sophistication in this poor mountain village where the streets, the mud homes, even the crops are the same drab dusty brown.

    But her story is depressingly typical of poor Chinese girls: Although nine years of education is compulsory in China, Hong Mei has never been to school. "Of course I'd like to go, but it's too expensive and my mother needs my help at home," she quietly explained. Her three younger brothers are all enrolled.

    School fees in Lijiagou have risen from $2.50 to $7.50 per five-month semester in the last five years -- a huge sum in a region where per capita income is $50 a year and the payback for literacy seems far away. And the Hui Muslims who live here in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, like families in much of poor rural China, have never seen much point in educating daughters anyway.

    All told, only 20 percent of girls -- and 40 percent of boys -- are now in school in Lijiagou.

    In many parts of poor rural China, economics are keeping an increasing number of children out of the classroom. Required fees at state schools have grown exponentially since the central government largely stopped subsidizing primary education a decade ago. Today education is increasingly a luxury item in China's poorest villages, purchased only when finances allow -- and far more often for boys than for girls.

    An aggressive government campaign to achieve 100 percent enrollment by the year 2000 has pushed attendance up in more prosperous regions, experts say. But in a number of poor rural areas, they add, only a fraction of children are in school.

    The government has exhorted local officials to work harder on education and has solicited charitable donations to subsidize schooling through Project Hope, run by the China Youth Development Foundation, and the Spring Bud Project for girls, run by the Women's Federation. Each has had success in the towns where it operates.

    Hai Minglian, a shy 10-year-old Hui girl with tattered cloth shoes and a red thread holding back long black hair, is now in a second-grade class, one of two organized by the Spring Bud Project, in the village of Kaicheng, also in Ningxia.

    Every day after school, she packs up her pencil stub and the razor blade she uses as a sharpener and trudges back to the cave her family calls home. She feeds the ox and prepares a meal for her parents when they return from the fields. "Without Spring Bud," she said, "there is no way I could go to school."

    But the drop-out problem generally dwarfs the resources available to combat it. There are only 48 Spring Bud classes in Guyuan County, which includes Kaicheng, spread among 127 poor towns. Even Project Hope, the biggest educational assistance program in the country, sponsors only one-third of eligible children in the poor counties it assists.

    After an investigation of five provinces and cities last month, Peng Peiyun, deputy head of the National People's Congress, estimated that only two percent of counties officially designated as impoverished had met state standards for education as of last year.

    And most experts say it is hard to know the true magnitude of the problem, since statistics collected by the local governments are notoriously unreliable, tweaked to meet government goals.

    Recently, China's most popular investigative television show, Focus, profiled a middle school in rural Anhui Province where school officials forced 200 children who had dropped out to masquerade as students for the annual inspection.

    "The government campaign for universal enrollment has had two results," said Yuan Fang, a researcher at the National Research Center for the Development of Science and Technology, who has studied the impact of Project Hope.

    "The first is that the situation in the country as a whole is improving in the last few years. The second is that a lot of the statistics we get from local governments are fake. In some counties we visited, leaders just said that meeting the goal was impossible."

    In fact, primary education is based on a problematic equation, financed almost exclusively by individual villages and towns, which, in rural areas, often lack money.

    In a report on education to be published soon, a Communist Youth League official in Guyuan laid out his county's plight: Total revenue is less than $2 million a year in a county with half a million people and 408 schools. Just to pay the county's 5,000 teachers requires more than $3 million annually -- and that does not begin to address costs like classroom supplies and building upkeep.

    And so the schools, which are not allowed to charge tuition, instead assess an ever-growing list of "miscellaneous fees." In one typical school studied by Yuan, these fees included a book fee, a materials fee, a substitute-teaching fee, an electricity fee, a coal fee, even a fee to raise matching funds for a World Bank loan.

    The fees often total $20 to $35 a year, a huge amount for subsistence farmers. And in remote rural regions, where families generally have two or more children, parents must choose each year who, if anyone, goes to school.

    Kong Lanying said she believes in education but simply cannot always afford to enroll her 14-year-old daughter, who -- because of her erratic attendance -- is now in the fourth grade. "Whether she goes depends on whether we have the money at the time," she said, standing in front of the mud hut in Lijiagou that is her home, a tattered quilt serving as the front door.

    The vagaries of family finances mean that many students have stuttering educations and a single elementary school class can contain children aged from 7 to 14.

    In Guyuan's impoverished villages, less than 60 percent of boys and 50 percent of girls enter school, according to the report. Even according to the latest central government statistics, 25 percent of students in Ningxia drop out after one year and less than 50 percent finish elementary school, completing sixth grade.

    "In the conflict between subsistence and education, subsistence is the priority and compulsory education is beyond talking about -- the goal of realizing compulsory education by the year 2000 is for us a beautiful dream," said the official with Guyuan's Communist Youth League.

    Even without good statistics, there is evidence that the dropout rate is climbing.

    This month, in a front-page essay in the national newspaper Farmer's Daily, an official from a poor prefecture in Shandong Province painted a grim picture. He said many townships were spending more than half their revenue to pay teachers, who were often paid late or not at all and have to quit or take second jobs that interfere with teaching. School fees "exceeded the capacity of a proportion of families," said the official, Li Chang.

    "In parts of the countryside, the occurrence of students resisting going to school or dropping out has become increasingly serious," he said.

    Likewise, a township Communist Party secretary in western Qinghai Province, a sparsely populated area of nomadic herders, recently told the Economic Information Daily that "mobilizing children to go to school has become the biggest headache for our township and village cadres." Herders, the official said, are unwilling to send their children; the five secondary schools in the region have seen attendance drop from more than 6,000 earlier in the decade to 1,170 last year.

    The rising cost of education is the biggest precipitant, researchers say. "Children can't go to school because their families can't pay," said Yuan.

    Recent changes in China's labor market also mean poor farmers see fewer benefits to schooling.

    A decade ago, education was a reliable route for smart children to escape the countryside -- springing from local schools, to the country's free regional universities and on to a secure government job.

    But today, China's universities have started to charge significant tuition, beyond the reach of the very poor. Also, with China's state sector shrinking and the economy slumping, more college graduates find themselves unemployed.

    "In the past, university graduates would all get jobs," said Shi Jinghuan, a researcher at Beijing Normal University, China's most prestigious teachers' college. "But now it's much harder. And these rural kids don't have connections. So they don't get jobs, and then come back to work in the fields -- which they're not good at anyway. So unfortunately the parents say, why bother?"

    Mei-Duo-Er-Cai, a herder and local official in Qinghai, told the Economic Information Daily that in 1997, 53 recent university graduates returned home to her rural area, jobless. Because of China's strict system of residency permits, graduates who do not find employment must return to their registered homes.

    Young girls bear the brunt of the hardship. The sidewalks of Beijing's clubby Sanlitun district are dotted with school-age girls from poorer provinces, selling flowers -- often to support a brother's tuition. Female dropout rates are particularly high in the Muslim minority areas, like the poor villages of southern Ningxia, where workers in the Spring Bud program fight local biases.

    In somewhat more prosperous regions, children drop out at slightly older ages, but the problem still exists. In one study in Chongqing County, Sichuan Province, more than 30 percent of children ages 12 to 17 in poor areas were dropouts, and three-quarters of the dropouts were girls.

    The preponderance of female dropouts reflects centuries-old biases, but also practical considerations: In rural China, married daughters move away to their husband's community, while married sons remain at home to support their parents.

    Shan Xinlian, a Hui woman in Nanjiao, Ningxia, has two sons, ages 7 and 12, in elementary school and an 8-year-old daughter in a subsidized second grade class for girls. Ms. Shan never went to school -- and freely admits that her daughter probably would not either, if she had to pay.

    "In our village, girls are not as important," she said. "School is so expensive. And what's the point of paying all that money, since she'll belong to another family once she gets married?"

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