China Power

Why Bother With College?

Many Chinese students want an Ivy League education. But is it really worth the money?

This month, in response to my post ‘Education Bubbles,’ I was asked the following three questions:

1.  How can you get the most out of your college degree?

2.  What can you gain from college that’s not financial?

3.  How can we determine a person’s ability, talent, and experience?

Because my students plan to study in the United States, I frequently discuss these issues with them. As I already mentioned, in a bad economy, Americans are increasingly questioning the value of taking out a second mortgage so that junior can have fun. But just as Americans are thinking of dropping out of college, Chinese are queuing up to take their place. Study abroad is such a hot trend that Shenzhen High School’s study abroad programme, which I created, will expand to become two international high schools next year.     

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I’ve always been sceptical about Chinese students studying in the United States.  Many go to study business, and I used to tell them that they should take $10,000 of the $200,000 tuition money and become a fruit vendor. After four years of dealing daily with ignorant customers, arrogant policemen and thugs, they’ll have acquired the requisite knowledge of how to really do business in China, and with the $190,000 they can start their business career. I also told a former student, Zhou Yeran, that he was so talented that he ought to use his tuition money to make low-budget films for four years. (I was popular neither with those students who wanted to study business, nor with Zhou Yeran’s mother.)

Since then I’ve grown up a bit, and nowadays I tell my Peking University High School International Division students that, as China becomes increasingly more international and increasing bilingual in Chinese and Chinglish, the ability to read and write well in English is what will guarantee their professional success and personal happiness in life. While Chinese may speak fluent English, they’ll eventually hit a glass ceiling in a multinational because they can’t write well enough in English.  But if our students develop the habit of reading, they’ll discover that new worlds would immediately open to them: the Internet would suddenly become an infinite continent, books would permit them to travel back in time and skip forward to the future, and newspapers would connect them to a global community. 

Our plan is to have students avoid applying to large state universities and the Ivy League, and apply only to humanities programmes at liberal arts colleges. This is ironic because when Americans mention overpriced, useless degrees they mean the humanities programmes at liberal arts colleges. Americans would presumably agree that the ability to read and write well is a valuable commodity, but many will argue that there’s an infrastructure in place (public libraries, the Internet, writers’ workshops, salons, etc.) that permits students to learn to read and write well through constant practice and communication with peers (one of my favourite writers, James Ellroy, is self-taught). But Chinese lack this language environment and support system, and while four years of intense reading and writing is probably not enough, it’s still a priceless education for them.

And while reading and writing well in English would give our students a tremendous competitive advantage in the China marketplace, what we’re interested in is how this skill makes them better and happier people. To read and write well requires and promotes intellectual curiosity, a wide breadth of knowledge, and logical thinking ability. To truly read and write well, our students need to love learning, and to want to constantly seek new knowledge; a lifetime of constant self-improvement translates into a lifetime of happiness. 

The practical implication of targeting liberal arts colleges is that college admissions becomes less of a crapshoot. When I first started working in study abroad, I naively thought that I could get Shenzhen High School’s best students into the Ivy League. I thought Zhou Yeran, who was both a great writer and a great person, was a shoe-in for Yale or Harvard, and when he didn’t, it taught me never again to play the game that is Ivy League admissions.

Ivy League admissions officers say they’re looking for the best fit for their school, and they use what seems the world’s most torturous and belaboured application process to prove how serious they are. But just as employers won’t know the ability of a new hire until he’s been in the organization for months or possibly years, the Ivy League just won’t know what an admitted student’s actual performance is until, at the earliest, the student turns 40 years-old. The only real indicator of a person’s future performance is his family background, and that’s why the US university admissions process is so idiotic: the Ivy League asks for class grades that can be inflated, scores of tests that can be prepped, and essays that can be doctored, and in the end they’ll mainly admit the children of successful parents. 

Talent and ability can’t be identified through tests and interviews, and the most egregious aspect of Ivy League admissions is how it can brand people as a success or failure at age 17. Talent and ability are the natural by-products of hard work and dedication in a high-pressure and strict environment, and such an environment is often not found in the Ivy League, where students are too often spoiled and pampered

What we constantly reinforce in our students is that it doesn’t matter where you go to school, but what you make of the experience while you’re there. The most valuable thing for work and for life they can learn in a US college and university is the priceless skill of writing well. Whether or not they succeed today—in college and in life—is ultimately their choice, and no one has the right to tell them otherwise.