With the close of 2016 National College Entrance Exam season, Shenzhen students led the nation with a 25 percent admission rate to China’s top tier universities. Many parents have taken that as a sign that Shenzhen schools offer the best route to top academic institutions.

In the weeks since, the cost of homes near Shenzhen’s high schools have surged to more than 100,000 yuan per square meter.

But the cost of similar homes near schools in Beijing and Shanghai is quickly catching up. According to a survey by Tencent, the median price for a Shanghai home near a good elementary school was 41,027 yuan per square meter.

For parents, getting an apartment zoned for a good school district is like winning the lottery and freeing their child from admission exams and lotteries.

A Heated Race

China has long regarded learning as the most important tool to change one’s fate, and Chinese parents attach great importance to the schools their children attend. That thinking drives the skyrocketing cost of apartments in good school districts.

Applications for admission to top schools in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have swelled 50 percent since 2005. In cities such as Hangzhou and Nanjing, the growth is commonly below 10 percent.

Apart from better teachers and infrastructure, big cities offer an open and global outlook hidden in smaller towns. Schools in the cities are not just a mere place to learn, but a place to socialize with competitive peers.

Zou Quan, a graduate of Tsinghua University, was not a Beijing local. He fought hard to be admitted to the top university of the country, but found a gulf between him and his Beijing peers.

“Their world was so much bigger than me,” Zou said. “The outlook a child gets being raised in Beijing and Shandong is totally different. I want my daughter can grow up in such a big world, so I sent her to a Beijing school to broaden her horizon.”

Social life is another concern from parents.

“I am unmarried, but I bought an apartment in a good school district. Students in the elementary schools are from the families of civil servants, bank staff and professors. I want my child to grow up with access to those connections,” wrote Bujinyiyi, an online commentator featured in the Guangzou Daily.

Uncontrolled Price

In 2014, the first year of the new school zoning policy, a 4.4-square-meter school district apartment sold in Beijing for 1,350,000 yuan. The “mini apartment” was too small to contain a double bed.

Many shabby bungalows and old apartments in the districts of Dongcheng, Xicheng and Haidian are more valuable than they appear. Zoning for a good school gives many old homes a massive boost in value.

In May, DT Finance prepared a detailed budget for buying an apartment by a good school in Shanghai. The cheapest unit cost 4 million and was zoned for the least favorable school. As in Beijing, most apartments zoned for good schools are small and old. The most commonly purchased units measured between 40 and 70 square meters.

The US uses a similar zoning system. In New York City, the price of a home zoned for a good school district can be 20 to 30 percent higher than similar units.

Cindy Yin, a spokesperson for NY Rainbow Inc, said school districts in the US are in better condition because few American parents make school zoning their top priority.

“Most of our buyers are more concerned with the overall rating, including the community, education, access to medical care and public transportation,” Yin said.

Additionally, the “proof of address” required in US school admissions does not require ownership of the home. Parents seeking their child’s admission to a specific school can simply rent an apartment that is zoned for that school.

Possible Remedy

“High-quality education remains a scarce resource in China. While the government has made great attempts to remedy the shortage… they have done little to address unequal distribution,” said Wang Lina, an economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

In the past few years, Beijing educators have worked hard to weaken the connection between zoning and school admissions, even setting a goal of 95 percent education equality by 2020.

City education authorizes introduced a combination system in 2015. On the basis of school zoning, the new system allows certain elementary school students to pick the middle school they want. But the system was soon criticized as being “too easy to be manipulate.”

Wang Changlian, a commentator on Baidu Baijia, suggested China re-examine how it evaluates education quality.

“I think the education quality of certain regions should not be determined by the number of prestigious schools, but by the difference between the top schools and the average,” Wang said.

Karena Hu

About Karena Hu

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Karena was born with the English name Karen but decided to add an “a.” She dreamed of a career in astronomy, but bad scores in physics kept her out of the science department. She seeks other worlds in reading and writing and is a super fan of the Hunger Games trilogy.

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