Search by School Name     
 Home > China Education

The Real Cost of Education in China

The right education matters more than ever in twenty-first century China. A first-rate education is seen not only as a gateway to personal and professional success, but as a status symbol among the country’s new rich – and parents rich and poor are willing to pay the price for it, both in personal sacrifice and in Renminbi. This article looks at the real – and rising – cost of an education in China.

China’s universities first began tentatively charging tuition fees in 1997. Since then, these fees have not only become par for the course but also increased with every passing year. Added to the bribes that many institutions – from kindergarten to university level – still accept despite Xi Jinping’s government’s highly publicized anti-corruption campaign, this makes for an exorbitantly priced education. How far do parents go to secure places for their children in China’s top schools? What role does status play in the education race, both at home and abroad? And what does the rise of Western schools mean for Chinese education?

Under pressure

China now produces more than eight million university graduates a year, leaping ahead of developed nations in the West. The road to that figure is long and expensive, and the pay-off isn’t always there in a job market that’s feeling the pinch of a shrinking – albeit in very relative terms – economy. For many families, more than half of their annual income goes towards tuition fees and living costs for children away at college. The pressure on these students is, by Western standards, almost unthinkable: parents who have toiled for years, often after migrating to new towns and cities to earn higher salaries, forgoing time off work or trips home, expect their only child to support them in their old age after everything they have sacrificed.  

A tentative framework for a social security system is being tested in China, but it is still far from the social welfare programs in other countries. Educating a child is an investment not only for the child’s future, but for the whole family – and the pressure starts long before university is even on the horizon. While their parents work away, children are far from idle. From a very young age, the majority of children are up at dawn and in school by seven. Once the school day finishes, between four and six in the afternoon, they are shuttled off to private (read: paying) after-school classes to continue studying until eight or nine at night. This pattern is set in place and rigorously maintained with all eyes on the all-important gaokao, China’s state university entrance exam.

The money needed to ensure students’ success is less of an issue for affluent families in showcase cities like Shanghai and Beijing, but much more of a burden in poorer rural areas. Education touches at the heart of social and cultural issues in China: social mobility can only be afforded through education – and increasingly, only affluent city-dwellers have access to good schooling, creating a vicious cycle of extreme debt among the country’s rural poor, who continue to bet everything on their children’s education.

City versus country

 As with every facet of life in the Asian giant, the gap between city and countryside dwellers is deep and wide when it comes to education in China. Education is more costly in the cities, but proportionally eats up much more of the family income in the countryside: a third of a family’s annual income in the city versus almost half in rural areas. Factor in an overseas university education and the figures soar – a Bachelor’s in a foreign country can cost a family three to four years of annual income. What’s more worrying is that these overseas degrees do not seem to give graduates more of a competitive edge when they return to China to seek employment, making the return on investment negligible, to say the least.

In a recent Financial Times article, Zong Qinghou, China’s second-richest man, who sent his only daughter, Zong Fuli, to study overseas, was quoted as saying, “[my daughter] knows neither the current situation for Chinese enterprises nor the situation abroad”. Graduates from foreign universities, aptly nicknamed “haigui” or “sea turtles” – one foot on land, one foot at sea – are caught in the middle. Added to this is the fact that not all foreign universities are created equal: there are vast differences between Ivy League schools and community colleges in the USA, for example. More worryingly, many Chinese parents seem not to be aware of this, seeing a foreign diploma as superior across the board. Many agencies that facilitate entry into schools abroad for Chinese students are aware of this, and take advantage, charging the same hefty prices for no-name degree mill schools as legitimate institutions – up to US$30,000.

Increasingly, it is not just the privileged few sending their children overseas; according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a third of Chinese students studying abroad in 2010 were from working-class families. Paradoxically, because of the huge number of fresh graduates, jobs are scarce, and the top spots go to those educated at the best universities. Again, due to the cost of exam preparation tests (including the SATs for those bound for the USA, and TOEFL or IELTS to certify proficiency in English), extracurricular English classes, and private tutoring in other subjects, those most likely to have graduated from a good school are the children of affluent families. Graduates from more humble backgrounds, those who need a good job the most, will have a much harder time finding a good position with a decent salary. The cycle continues.


A foreign education represents a significant investment for all but the Chinese super-rich. But bribes also drive up the price of schooling to foreign-education levels at home – even before it’s time to send Xiaoming off to college. The tuition fees for elite private kindergartens, often bilingual or English-speaking, are often far too costly for middle-class families. The situation is worsened by the fact that the extreme competition that exists between parents to send their offspring to these elite schools makes bribery the most straightforward option to snag a place, as well as the ubiquitous guanxi (connections): the weaker the connection, the more onerous the bribe. Sources have reported on bribes of up to three million Yuan for a place at international kindergartens; in other cases, to drive up a middle school student’s GPA and make attending a better high school possible, additional points can be added to the student’s transcripts – but at 4,800  USD a point, it isn’t cheap. On paper, these bribes are described as voluntary “donations”, a creative appellation to ensure the money keeps coming in.

Necessity is the main factor that seems to be driving the race for education in China, especially for the less fortunate. Status also plays a role. A good education is not just a means for the whole family to thrive; it is also a status symbol, particularly when it comes to international schools. Much like the TEFL industry in most of Southeast Asia, these schools are managed according to market needs, instead of being held to a unified standard of education. The perceived superiority of international schools, as is the case with foreign universities, makes them a lucrative business for unscrupulous companies. In some cases, the teachers working there are unqualified – though China’s increasingly strict employment regulations are making this more and more difficult, or the curriculum is sub-par. In many cases, parents cannot tell whether or not the school is legitimate, making them an easy target for high fees.

Education in China is a window into the social dynamics of the country, its profound divisions and the distance it still has to go before equality catches up to its staggering economic expansion. As always, the working classes pay a higher price, both in money and in personal struggle, to push their children out of poverty and up the social ladder, degree in hand. The question is how long the situation will continue to simmer before it explodes. As the economy slows, will Chinese parents continue to keep their children’s noses to the grindstone in hope of a prestigious job that may never materialize? Education, the great equalizer, hasn’t quite made the grade in modern-day China – yet.