What is our scholarship money really doing? This is a very legitimate question in light of the fact that incomes are increasing in Liangshan, including the Baiwu Valley where Yangjuan and Pianshui lie, and in light of the fact that Nuosu students from other nearby places also go to college. In order to answer this question, I’d like to look at two kinds of data that help put CMEF and our students in a wider, regional perspective.
At a pig lunch in Yanyuan County Town, I had the good luck to run into the principal of a 9-year, combined elementary and middle school in a township abutting Baiwu. We talked about his school and what happens to students afterwards. That school, a fully-supported, official township school, has typically had 6th-grade graduating classes of about 150 students in the past few years. Although the principal had no exact statistics, he believed that out of graduating classes that recently reached college age, about 10 or 12 per year had continued to college. In other words, they have about 7-8% of their graduates go to college, a figure typical for poor areas in rural China, whether they are Han or minority areas. We don’t know how much our scholarship program contributes to the 30% rate of Yangjuan graduates, but it is quite possibly a factor, particularly in encouraging families to have their sons and daughters go to high school rather than migrating for labor after middle-school graduation.
Another way to look at the question is to look at student budgets. Noah, Tiffany, and I visited Xichang College, overlooking beautiful Qiong Lake, at the beginning of September, and Ma Xiaolan, our first college senior, called together some of her classmates and took us on a campus tour,
after which we strolled in the searing sunshine down to the lakeshore and I bought everyone ice cream while we discussed family budgets. Mentioning no names, I got the following information from three students:
The total cost of college for these students is about 12,000 renminbi per year. About half of this is school fees–tuition, room, books, and miscellaneous. The other half is living expenses, mostly food but also including clothing and a few of the entertainment activities that Kaitlin outlined before as part of normal college life. For one of our scholarship recipients, her family could afford to pay about 4,000 of the school expenses, while the family borrowed the other 2,000 from relatives and friends. The living expenses were split about evenly between our scholarship (3,000), and her part-time jobs at the college, sweeping dorm and classroom floors, and opening up all the classrooms every morning (another 3,000). Because this student also has a younger brother, one year behind but in a three-year program, the family had similar expenses for him, but paid all of his school fees, lessening the need for him to work, but still borrowing about 2,000. For their two children, then, they have borrowed about 14,000 renminbi in the last four years. If both children get immediate employment, they ought to be able to pay off the debt in 2-3 years. But if it were not for our scholarship aid to this family, totaling 18,500 over the period their children have been in college, the debt would have been more than doubled, or the father would have had to do a lot more migration labor than he did. In other words, we cut this family’s debt in half.
The other two students I talked to were not our scholarship recipients (they were from other communities), but they had similar strategies, starting from slightly better economic circumstances, and ending up with similar debt or a little more. In other words, what we are doing, financially, is to reduce greatly the equivalent of American student loan debt. I think the prospect of debt may be what deters many people from making the investment in college, and this in turn means that we are lessening the uncertainty by decreasing the debt.
Next week, I’ll talk about my presentation on Yangjuan at Sichuan Normal University.