While many students in the midst of the college application process worry about their standardized test scores, these measures of intelligence are weighted far less heavily in the United States than in China, according to Prof. Ruixue Jia, economics, University of California, San Diego.
Jia, who conducts research on political and developmental economics in China, presented her studies on China’s national college entrance exam, the Gaokao, at a lecture Monday. Her data shows how students’ test scores affect their admission into the country’s elite universities and the correlation between an elite education and increased social mobility.
“Each year around 10 million students take this exam,” Jia said. “It is likely to be the most largely taken exam in the world.”
Students believe that attending an elite university signals to employers that they are “intellectually capable” of being an asset to an organization, Jia said. This attracts employers to elite schools to recruit on campus at career fairs.
The increased likelihood of obtaining a higher-paying job leads many Chinese citizens to view an elite university as “their ticket to the elite class,” Jia said. She added that her research attempts to quantify how justified this “obsessive pursuit for university prestige” is, by estimating the return on an education at one of China’s elite universities.
“Access to an elite education is believed to be important for elite formation and social mobility in modern societies,” Jia said. “But does attending an elite university like Cornell or another Ivy League really help, or not?”
To answer this question, Jia said she surveyed a random sampling of 40,000 students over the course of six years. She used a distribution of scores from different provinces across China to see how an elite education, family and individual characteristics, age and gender impacted first job outcomes.
“Students from elite universities on average do make more, mainly because of signaling,” Jia said. “It doesn’t mean they were actually more qualified. There’s actually a phrase in China: high score, low ability.”
Roughly 2,300 universities in China — each belonging to a different tier with a different cutoff score — use the Gaokao to determine the students they accept, according to Jia.
“All tiers use this exam to recruit students,” Jia said. “China’s elite universities make up the first tier and they recruit first. Only 96 universities belong to this first tier. If you are above their cutoff, you are eligible to apply to that university.”
The cutoff scores are a key difference between the use of the Gaokao and of U.S. standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT, according to Jia. She said that in China, no matter your other qualifications, students cannot apply to a school if they do not meet its cutoff.
However, Jia stressed that students who score above the cutoff are still not guaranteed admission, and have little freedom to select their area of study, even if they are accepted.
“If you score just above the cutoff, you’re lucky you are above it, but you are still at the bottom of the eligible group,” Jia said. “You are less likely going to be able to major in a popular field.”
The highest-scoring applicants have the first choice of spots in the most popular disciplines — usually economics, finance and law, according to Jia. She said some students may choose to attend a lower-tier university to obtain a spot in one of these majors, but did not recommend this strategy.
“I would say still go to a better university because signaling is so important in the labor market,” she said. “Employers trust the exam system.”
When asked if there has been backlash against the test in China — similar to how some U.S. students discredit the SAT and ACT’s reliability in predicting intellect — Jia said there have been some disputes about changing the Gaokao’s contents, altering cutoffs or abolishing the exam entirely.
She added that her own opinion of the exam is uncertain and unfixed.
“I’m not promoting or attacking the exam system,” Jia said. “I have very mixed feelings.”