China’s future economic growth is dependent on skilled and educated workers. However, recent studies have shown that only a little more than half of the students from poor, rural areas finish junior high school and enter academic or vocational high school. The low level of educational attainment of these students is not surprising given that China has a high level of poverty in rural areas, rapidly rising wages for unskilled work and a highly competitive education system. One problem behind the low rates of matriculation to high school is that, as early as grade 7, students may be misinformed about the returns to high school education and lack other career planning information and skills, such that they drop out before even graduating, lose motivation to perform well academically, and exclude high school from their future plans.
The purpose of this study is to explore the effectiveness of providing information and career counseling in reducing dropout, improving academic performance, and increasing the number of grade 7 students who plan to attend high school in China’s poor, rural areas. To meet this objective, we conducted a cluster-randomized controlled trial (RCT) using a sample of 132 junior high schools and roughly 20,000 students in 15 nationally-designated poor counties in Shaanxi and Hebei provinces. In the RCT we randomly selected and provided training for junior high school teachers to give students either a) information on the returns and costs associated with higher levels of schooling or b) career counseling to help students plan for their school and career options. We then evaluated whether students dropped out less, performed better academically, or planned to matriculate in academic and vocational high school more.