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Matchmaker, matchmaker, find me a school: College admissions in China

A student takes a nap on a desk during his lunch break studying for the National College Entrance Exam in Anhui Province, China. June 2, 2012. Reuters/Jianan Yu

Matchmaker, matchmaker, find me a school: College admissions in China

High school students in the United States work hard under great pressure to get into their chosen colleges. They must maintain high grades in challenging courses throughout high school, score well on ACT or SAT exams, painstakingly fill out applications – and then wait and hope.

It’s not easy, and it can be heartbreaking if students’ top choices reject them.

But at least they don’t have to go back to high school, repeat their senior year, retake their exam and then reapply to college.

For 40 years, that’s what routinely happened to millions of students in China under a centralized, student-to-college matching system that only recently has been radically changed.

As a professor in the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI), I worked with Onur Kesten from Carnegie Mellon University to analyze these student-to-college matching systems in China. We found that, in fact, things are getting better for Chinese students. And – perhaps surprisingly – the new Chinese system has implications for similar processes in the United States.

Students in an exam hall at Dongguan University of Technology, in south China’s Guangdong province. July 9, 2007. Reuters/China Daily

Winning but losing

In 1952, China instituted the National College Entrance Exam, also known as gaokao, taken by all high school seniors in the country over a grueling two-day period each year. After receiving their exam scores and learning their ranking, students apply to the universities of their choice.

The students select universities based on factors like exam scores, the schools’ prestige, how likely it is that they’ll be accepted and their own willingness to take risks.

Until 2001, there was just a single method used to assign students to universities. In this “sequential” system, a student would rank the schools in order of preference and receive immediate acceptance (or rejection).

Students study for China’s annual national college entrance exam in Changsha, Hunan province. June 3, 2016. Reuters/China Stringer Network

Unfortunately, in this system, if students are denied acceptance by their top-ranked schools, their second, third or fourth choices might already be filled. (Those schools were likely the first choice of thousands of other students.) So, the system continues down a student’s list and, often, issues an acceptance from a low-ranked school – or worse, no acceptance at all – and the student is forced to repeat a year of high school.

This is, in fact, very similar to the kind of open enrollment plans that many U.S. states use to place students in public schools of their choice. In 2007, an estimated 16 percent of U.S. public school students participated in a plan like this.

For instance, in Boston, students are allowed to submit preferences for which of the dozens of public high schools in the city they’d like to attend. Those preferences were once used in a series of rounds to assign students to schools. In the first round, only the first choices of the students were considered. Students left unassigned would have their second choices considered in the second round, and so on, until all students were assigned a seat. As in China, families would rank their choices and frequently find themselves pushed out of their top choices.

In both China and Boston, this led to a number of students attempting to game the system: Top students frequently chose not to list their actual first choice, fearing that they wouldn’t be accepted and would be shut out of any desirable school. Instead, they would place a lower-ranked school at the top, with the hope that it would guarantee them an acceptance.

As one parent in China said:

“My child has been among the best students in his school and school district. Unfortunately… after his first choice rejected him, his second and third choices were already full. My child had no choice but to repeat his senior year.”

Repeating their senior year is the most common way students can retake the gaokao and reapply for university acceptance.

Mothers wait near a school in Beijing, China, as their children take the National College Entrance Exams. June 7, 2011. Reuters/Jason Lee

There’s got to be a better way

In 2001, Hunan province was the first to roll out a different approach to college admission: the so-called “parallel” system.

The parallel approach allows students to submit several “parallel” desirable choices within a band, or tier, of choices. For example, a student could list three universities in the first band and three more in a second band, in decreasing levels of desirability within each band.

Allocation within each band is temporary until all students’ choices are considered. The system attempts to match as many students as possible in their first band before moving on to the second band.

We found that every newly adopted parallel system was more stable than the sequential program it replaced. That is, the resulting matches were more desirable and “envy-free.” For example, when Shanghai switched to a parallel mechanism in 2008, the number of students who refused to attend colleges they were matched with decreased by 40 percent.

We also found that the number of choices allowed in each tier matters. To date, the most successful parallel system is employed in Tibet, which allows up to 10 choices in the first band.

Parents and relatives see students off as they leave Maotanchang Middle School for Luan city to attend the upcoming annual National College Entrance Exam. June 5, 2017. Reuters/Jason Lee

Improving the odds

Every June, 9 to 10 million high school seniors take the gaokao. They are vying for just 6 million college seats.

This year, all but three of China’s 31 provinces are using the new system, giving more students more satisfactory choices – and far less chance of having to repeat their senior year of high school. This, in turn, incentivizes truthful ranking and discourages students from attempting to game the system. It also avoids wasting scarce university seats when students unsatisfied with their matches decline admission.

There are lessons here for school choice programs in the U.S. and around the world.

Systems much like China’s sequential method are still being used in Charlotte, North Carolina; Minneapolis; Seattle; Tampa; and other cities where students have a choice as to which public school they attend.

However, for about 12 years, Boston and New York have used an updated model more like China’s new parallel approach. These newer systems use an algorithm to grant temporary placement until all students have received one of their top choices. And these systems universally place more students in the schools they want to attend.

Our recommendation is that more places – including the remaining Chinese provinces – abandon the outdated sequential method. And, for those that have already adopted the new method, we hope that they will allow more choices within each tier.

Student-to-school matching has profound implications for the educational and professional outcomes for students. They deserve a system that’s more favorable – and more equitable – for all.