If you thought that President Barack Obama's goal to increase the number of American college graduates was ambitious, you haven't examined a similar plan being put into action in China. The country is investing up to $250 billion every year in helping to create a a college-educated generation just as the balance between urban and rural dwellers in the country begins to shift at a record pace.
For decades, only a very limited number of "elites" in China had access to higher education – and more lucrative management jobs that come with a college-level degree – while the vast majority toiled as untrained manual labor. Now China wants to refashion its society to create a more educated population that more closely mirrors that of Western Europe and United States.
While potentially enhancing China's future as a global industrial power, an increasingly educated population poses daunting challenges for its leaders. With the Chinese economy downshifting in the past year to a slower growth rate, the country faces a glut of college graduates with high expectations and limited opportunities.
Much depends on whether China's authoritarian political system can create an educational system that encourages the world-class creativity and innovation that modern economies require, and that can help generate enough quality jobs.
There are a number of structural barriers standing in the way of this goal, among them systematic corruption, inefficient state-managed monopolies in industry, an inflexible political system and lack of interest in shrinking its environmental footprint. Yet the prize for overcoming these problems is worth it. Already a feared rival to the West for global economic supremacy, China could be in an even better position to compete for that perch with a more broadly educated populace.
To the extent that China succeeds, its educational leap forward could have profound implications in a globalized economy in which a growing share of goods and services is traded across international borders. Increasingly, college graduates all over the world compete for similar work, and the boom in higher education in China is starting to put pressure on employment opportunities for college graduates elsewhere — including in the United States.
The educational push is part of China's current five-year industrial plan that has seven distinct aims. Among them are alternative energy, energy efficiency, focus on environmental protection and high end equipment manufacturing. To reach these goals before 2015 – the end date of the plan – China plans to invest more than $1.6 trillion, all to grow these industries enough to have them make up 8% of the country's GDP.