Last Wednesday, Yale announced a $10 million donation from Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, a wealthy Chinese couple. The news, which made waves in China, was received with incredulity. On one popular Chinese social media platform, one Chinese student at Yale asked, “When will I have a concept of how much money $10 million really is?”
Beyond the scale, Pan and Zhang’s gift is relevant to Chinese students because the fund is specifically earmarked for financial aid with the intention of funding the education of high-achieving, low-income students from China. The $10 million gift is part of a larger initiative, the SOHO China Undergraduate Scholarship Fund, named for Pan and Zhang’s real estate company. The Fund has already donated $15 million to Harvard for the same purpose and aims to donate $100 million to colleges across America to create opportunities for low-income Chinese applicants.
On paper, the donation appears sound and even praiseworthy. While some skeptics believe Pan and Zhang are donating this money in order to boost their company’s reputation, I believe that the generosity of Pan and Zhang is genuine. But even so, it is hard for me to believe that the money couldn’t have been better spent elsewhere or in a way that is more beneficial for low-income Chinese students.
For starters, Yale and Harvard both already offer need-blind financial aid for international students. Even without Pan and Zhang’s gift, any Chinese student would have had their tuition fees covered if they needed the money. Pan and Zhang’s gift helps Yale by allowing the University to take out less money from the endowment for our annual financial aid needs. It’s freeing up $10 million in unrestricted funds for the University to use for other institutional priorities. That’s fine. It’s important for donors to give to Yale because every student on campus benefits from our incredible resources and opportunities.
But for the Chinese applicants whom Pan and Zhang purportedly are trying to help, it doesn’t make a difference whether the money came from Yale’s endowment or from SOHO China’s Fund.
Another concern I have is whether the money will actually go to “low-income” students from China. Most of the students at Yale from China that I’ve met don’t come from low-income families. A number come from some of China’s wealthiest and best-connected families. The other half of us come from families like mine. We’re neither rich nor poor, but we come from China’s middle class and our parents earn their salaries in Chinese renminbi. We receive financial aid because we can’t pay full sticker price, but it would be unfair for us to receive funds that were earmarked and publicized as being for “low-income” students.
It’s almost impossible for a Chinese student from a genuinely low-income family to get into Yale or Harvard. It is difficult to begin to explain the grave inequality in Chinese education. Chinese students from rural areas and low-income backgrounds cannot compete with students in urban areas who have better schools and teachers. Recently, there was a cutback in English education in most schools. This only exacerbates the divide between those who live in cosmopolitan cities such as Shanghai and Beijing and those who do not.
I personally observed China’s education gap in two rural middle schools in Hebei Province, a stone’s throw from Beijing. During my short stay in the schools I witnessed the desperation beyond failing grades and broken dreams, that is the lack of social mobility. Last month, a girl from the second school I visited emailed me that half of the boys in her class had dropped out. Those children simply chose sweatshop wages over an education in which they found no hope.
Rather than donate to Harvard or Yale, it would be better if Pan and Zhang gave their money to level the playing field at home. Money is not everything, but it can pay for the teachers and resources necessary for low-income students to even become competitive applicants for top U.S. colleges.
Few people are in a better position to work with local governments to bridge China’s education gap than wealthy and influential people like Pan and Zhang. Although helping China’s low-income students is more complicated than it seems, there are better ways to do this than simply expecting students from struggling backgrounds to make it to the gates of elite American colleges first and rewarding them afterwards. Pan and Zhang’s $100 million might be better spent pushing for concrete changes in China, not bolstering the accounts of Ivy League universities.
Yifu Dong is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.