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Funding the College Dream in China

China, May 26, 2005

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    Fengxian Chen receives about $250 a year to cover living expenses at a Beijing university as part of a Mercy Corps-supported program. Photo: courtesy of The Beijing News. Photo:

For 19-year-old Fengxian Chen, leaving a village set amidst wheat and corn fields to attend Northern China University of Technology in Beijing is an opportunity to escape stifling rural poverty. But as the eldest of four children in a poor, fatherless household, being 10 hours from home puts an enormous financial and emotional burden on her and her family.

"After my dad passed away, there's always someone in the village looking to take advantage of my mother and our family," says Chen. Her mother is ailing and needs help running her small grocery. But because she needs to go to work to pay for tuition and school expenses, and because the price of the nine-hour train ride and hourlong bus ride to get to her home in Henan Province is steep, Chen can afford to go home only once a year.

As university enrollment numbers swell, thanks in part to newly lowered tuition rates and a national recruitment drive, the cost of a college education remains a heavy burden for millions of rural and low-income Chinese students like Chen.

That's why Mercy Corps is helping support a program that provides financial and emotional aid to low-income college students, many of them from rural areas. The "New Great Wall" program, sponsored by Mercy Corps and the China Foundation For Poverty Alleviation, subsidizes a student's basic living expenses and helps them ease into university life through student activity groups known as Self-Improvement Leagues. Nearly 13,000 students have benefited from the program since 2002.

The student aid is financed through government agencies, corporations and individual donations and pays out 2,000 yuan per student - that's about $250, roughly enough to cover basic living expenses for a year at an urban university.

The fund allows poor students to join the growing numbers of Chinese students attending college, where they'll learn marketable skills and broaden their career options. Even though a host of government and private agencies are addressing the high cost of post-secondary education, tuition remains an enormous burden to millions. Despite China's rapid economic growth, China still ranks behind countries like Algeria, Botswana and Turkmenistan in wealth per person, and more than 100 million Chinese live on less than a dollar a day.

Most disadvantaged are rural Chinese, who have approximately one-third the disposable income of their urban counterparts. Chen financed college by borrowing 4,000 yuan from friends and neighbors, and by working out a deal with the college that allowed her to defer tuition payments.

To make ends meet, Chen works three part-time jobs and wears donated clothing, including a jacket given to her by one of the students she tutors. She estimates her living expenses cost about 200 yuan a month, nearly all of which are covered by the program.

Even with the assistance, she still struggles to support herself and her family. She returns home only for a week each year during the Chinese New Year celebration, which coincides with the semester break. "I have to come back to Beijing to work and make money," says Chen, a sophomore studying business administration. "My brothers and sisters have to go to school, and I still have a lot of tuition I have to pay back."