HANJING, China — Wu Yiebing has been going down coal shafts practically every workday of his life, wrestling an electric drill for $500 a month in the choking dust of claustrophobic tunnels, with one goal in mind: paying for his daughter’s education.
His wife, Cao Weiping, toils from dawn to sunset in orchards every day during apple season in May and June. She earns $12 a day tying little plastic bags one at a time around 3,000 young apples on trees, to protect them from insects. The rest of the year she works as a substitute store clerk, earning several dollars a day, all going toward their daughter’s education.
Many families in the West sacrifice to put their children through school, saving for college educations that they hope will lead to a better life. Few efforts can compare with the heavy financial burden that millions of lower-income Chinese parents now endure as they push their children to obtain as much education as possible.
Yet a college degree no longer ensures a well-paying job, because the number of graduates in China has quadrupled in the last decade.
Mr. Wu and Mrs. Cao, who grew up in tiny villages in western China and became migrants in search of better-paying work, have scrimped their entire lives. For nearly two decades, they have lived in a cramped and drafty 200-square-foot house with a thatch roof. They have never owned a car. They do not take vacations — they have never seen the ocean. They have skipped traditional New Year trips to their ancestral village for up to five straight years to save on bus fares and gifts, and for Mr. Wu to earn extra holiday pay in the mines. Despite their frugality, they have essentially no retirement savings.
Thanks to these sacrifices, their daughter, Wu Caoying, is now a 19-year-old college sophomore. She is among the growing millions of Chinese college students who have gone much farther than their parents could have dreamed when they were growing up.
For all the hard work of Ms. Wu’s father and mother, however, they aren’t certain it will pay off. Their daughter is ambivalent about staying in school, where the tuition, room and board cost more than half her parents’ combined annual income. A slightly above-average student, she thinks of dropping out, finding a job and earning money.
“Every time my daughter calls home, she says, ‘I don’t want to continue this,’ ” Mrs. Cao said. “And I say, ‘You’ve got to keep studying to take care of us when we get old’, and she says, ‘That’s too much pressure, I don’t want to think about all that responsibility.’ ”