Job fair in China for college graduates.

College students in the U.S. facing the misery of an anemic post-graduation job market have company in an unlikely-seeming place: China. Despite entering a robust economy that seemed to weather the financial crisis as if were it a middling squall, China’s college graduates on average make only 300 yuan, or roughly $44, more per month than the average Chinese migrant worker, according to statistics cited over the weekend by a top Chinese labor researcher and reported today by the Beijing Times (in Chinese).



“It’s the first time China has faced such a situation,” the paper quoted Cai Fang, head of the Chinese Academy of Social Science’s Institute of Population and Labor Economics, as saying Saturday at a conference on Chinese youth. “It’s hard to say how long this situation will last.”

By Mr. Cai’s calculations, college graduates have consistently earned around 1,500 yuan a month since 2003. Migrant workers, meanwhile, have seen their monthly wages rise from an average of 700 yuan to 1,200 yuan over roughly the same time period, MR. Cai said, according to the Beijing Times.

China has faced a surfeit of college graduates in recent years, thanks in large part to an enrollment boom that has seen the university student population swell by as much as 30% year-to-year over the last decade. High levels of unemployment among recent graduates—an estimated one-third of the country’s 5.6 million 2008 graduates failed to find work in their first year out of school—are a major drag on the average wage figures. Meanwhile, labor shortages in manufacturing and construction have enabled migrant workers to demand higher and higher wages.

In a country where a highly competitive pursuit of higher education routinely forces families to spend fortunes, and children to sacrifice their childhoods, such statistics have to have many wondering, why bother?

In the nearly 1,800 comments the report has attracted at the Chinese news portal Sohu, that’s precisely what many are doing. While some readers took the news with a certain post-Communist irony (“Our society has made progress–no longer does a diploma determine social status,” wrote one), the vast majority were cynical about the value of a college education. “If you don’t test into one the top 50 universities, don’t bother doing to school,” one reader advised. “It’s useless.”

Complained another: “Of all universities in China, how many actually cultivate students? It’s all for money. What do college students learn? It doesn’t even compare to a high school education from before.”

Are Chinese degrees really so worthless? Not necessarily, according to Mr. Cai. Like wine, the wages of most college graduates improve significantly over time. But, Mr. Cai said, myopia is already starting to set in, particularly for working-class students for whom the combination of tuition and lost wages can seem too large a sacrifice.

“First it’s ‘Why bother making your kids study?’ or ‘Why bother going to university?’” the report quotes Mr. Cai saying. “Then it’s ‘Why bother going to high school?’”

One possible advantage Chinese degree-holders have over their American counterparts: In China, there’s no shame in living in your parents’ basement after graduation.

Via Wall Street Journal