What's behind China's interest in American college admission reform?
David Lee

Editor's note: David Lee is a consultant and author based in Beijing who focuses on energy, health, international politics and international development. The article reflects the author's opinion, and not necessarily the views of CGTN. 

As the college admissions bribery scandal rocked the American society earlier this year, thousands of miles away across the Pacific Ocean, Chinese people were paying close attention. Earlier this week, Chinese media quickly captured the sequel to the mostly ugly and sometimes absurd American saga.

The New York City-based College Board, the company that administers the SAT college admissions test, is launching a new tool named "Landscape" to help college admission officers consider more background information of the candidate, including the median family income, education levels and crime rates in the student's neighborhood.

It is reported that between 100 and 150 institutions are expected to pilot the new tool this year, before it becomes broadly available next year. There is almost an immediate controversy surrounding the "Landscape" tool, as critics call it an "overreach" for the College Board to score a college applicant's "adversity" the way it does academics.

According to the College Board though, the tool is not designed to score "adversity" in a way that favors students who "do more with less," but it simply provides more background information for the college admission officer to consider. As expected, America's nascent college admission reform may take quite some headwinds as it moves forward.

Why does Chinese media pay attention to the college admission scandal and subsequent reform effort? Admittedly, China is a markedly different society from America. Nevertheless, Chinese media's coverage of America's "Varsity Blues scandal" has ignited a big interest among many Chinese, notably from the country's rising middle class.

American actress Felicity Huffman leaves Boston federal court after pleading guilty in relation to charges stemming from the college admission scandal known as "Varsity Blues," May 13, 2019. /VCG Photo

American actress Felicity Huffman leaves Boston federal court after pleading guilty in relation to charges stemming from the college admission scandal known as "Varsity Blues," May 13, 2019. /VCG Photo

The big interest can be traced back to the very cultural root of Chinese parenting. Over thousands of years in a traditional Confucian society, Chinese parents have been known for their focus on the kids' good education. How education resource is administered and allocated has always been a top concern.

Of course, the contemporary educational scene in China has drastically changed, not a bit like the traditional Confucian schooling that focused only on literary skills and moral teaching.

Now, the Chinese college entrance examination system is undergoing structural changes. In China, college admission is transiting from purist meritocracy, i.e., to use the standard academic scores as the sole admission tool, to more comprehensive considerations of a student's backgrounds, in ways similar to the "Landscape" tool in the United States.

Even as the traditional Chinese society has a strong tendency towards meritocracy, contemporary China is embracing a more balanced approach to development opportunities. National programs are in place that allow students from poor regions with lower academic scores to be enrolled into top Chinese universities. 

Building on the past four decades of reform and opening-up, the Chinese society has cultivated a strong habit of learning. When it comes to the various aspects of social management, including education, there is a keen interest in making things better for Chinese by learning and adapting.

It is also worth noting that typical urban middle-class parents in China with a college-aged kid tend to have quite some understanding of American college admission. The Chinese understanding of American society, including specific knowledge of how college admission is being implemented, would far exceed the understanding of Chinese society by average American citizens.

To be fair, a huge "Varsity Blues scandal" that sweeps across the whole nation and persists many years is totally unthinkable in contemporary China. Even at the early stage of Chinese college admission reform, when individual institutions of higher learning have more authority and control over their own enrollment process without the need to rigidly sticking to standard test scores, Chinese parents and all stripes of Chinese society would certainly expect the country can learn from the American lessons.

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