John Richard Schrock is Professor of Biology Emeritus at Emporia State University in Kansas. He is currently in China. While China is growing its universities, the U.S. is retreating from its historic commitment to make higher education accessible to all qualified students.

China’s University Expansion

In 1992, I looked down from a window in an old high-rise classroom building at East China Normal University in Shanghai. It was noon and rivers of students were streaming into the “canteen” with their water thermoses in one hand and eating utensils in the other. Food would be a limited selection of rice or noodles with vegetables. These were the elite of China’s academic elite, the very top students who scored A+ on the Chinese high school graduation exam. They had earned the privilege to attend university free.

But facilities were old and worn. They would hurry to their classes in unpainted classrooms because the last students to arrive might have to stand because the seats were filled. Students lived 8-to-10 in a dormitory room that held nothing more than bunk beds. Professor pay was equal to a factory worker’s.

But the elderly administrators soon retired. There was no supply of experienced junior administrators due to a Cultural Revolution that had closed many universities for a decade. That left China’s Ministry of Education with an opportunity to completely re-build its university system nationwide.

So by 1998, the situation was different. Weak universities were closed or merged with strong institutions. China doubled its university capacity, then doubled it again in the early 2000s, and doubled it again by 2010. The cities of Xi’an and Guangzhou built “university cities” with 10 new universities each. Chongqing built their “university city” with 17 different universities totaling 300,000 faculty, students and staff. –An area equivalent to the size of Wichita! -But all just universities. This was the greatest expansion of higher education in human history.

Now, the majority of their students who passed the gao kao high school leaving exam could now attend college. But students would now pay full tuition. And that greatly improved the faculty salaries and living conditions. Classrooms and labs soon became state-of-the-art.

In 1995, China selected over a hundred universities for its “211 Project,” feeding federal money toward building modern universities. By 2000, China’s “985 Project” had designated nearly 40 universities for even greater national support. All other universities were left to the provinces to fund, similar to American public universities being state-funded (barely). The net effect was to triple the number of universities by 2017 and quadruple their student capacity, compared to the 1990s.

And as of two months ago, China began its Double World-Class Project. Their Ministry selected 42 universities to move to world-class status by 2050. 36 are Category A and 6 are Category B with a focus on applied research. It also has over 400 “key disciplines” spread across these and another 50 provincial universities that will receive additional generous governmental support.

Their National Natural Science Foundation announced a dramatic increase in grant funding two years ago. With a decade of substantial cash incentives for publishing in high ranked English journals, Chinese researchers have rapidly risen in authorship of research papers in the top science journals Science and Nature, second only to the U.S. in authorships. If this trend continues, China will be the top producer of research in a few more years.

So today, I am looking down from my 6-story office window in a Double World-Class university onto a state-of-the art campus. Well-dressed students busily walk, or ride electric motorbikes, between classes. Dormitories have only 4-6 students per room. They eat in a variety of canteens with a food selection that exceeds any American campus. Hot water thermoses are the only holdover from earlier times.

For nearly four decades, China has invested in roads, railways, and other infrastructure. But the most important of these investments was education. Roads and rails move people around. Education moves people ahead. And it has paid off in raising the productivity of China’s population beyond expectations. The affluence of their institutions and the majority of their students reflect that payback. China understands that education is not just for filling those jobs needed today.

The dramatic improvement in the quality of life across China is due primarily to China’s investment in education. The better life of the students I see below my window is due to the advanced economy prior graduates have created. These students will continue that progress. China’s prosperity proves that it is mass education and not capitalism driven by the top one percent that “raises all boats.”