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China goes to college - in a big way

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Several years ago, Chinese car manufacturer Geely grew concerned about a shortage of well-trained workers. Its solution: plunk down $800 million and start a private university.

Even a decade ago, the idea would have been almost unimaginable. But in 2000, the sprawling campus of Beijing Geely University, with its Stanford-inspired quad, opened on the outskirts of Beijing - one of some 1,300 private universities that have sprung up in recent years. This September, Geely will enroll about 20,000 students, studying everything from engineering to character education to English.

As China continues to surge onto the global economic stage, it is undergoing one of the most ambitious higher education expansions in the world. Spurred by a government call in the late 1990s to build world-class universities and broaden access to the masses, the country is prying open the doors of institutions that formerly served a narrow elite. It's pouring money into research, welcoming private ventures like Geely, and broadening the curriculum to ensure that its grads stay on top in a knowledge-based world economy.

Like so much in China, the move is happening quickly - and in eye-popping dimensions.

"It is an unprecedented expansion," says Gerard Postiglione, an education expert at the University of Hong Kong. It has been done, he notes, with little of the instability such a rapid boom can cause. "It is something that has happened nowhere else in terms of scale."

Since 1998, when Jiang Zemin, then president of China, spoke on the 100th anniversary of top-ranked Peking University and issued his bracing call for change, overall college enrollment in China has roughly tripled. The country now outpaces leaders like the US, India, Russia, and Japan in numbers of students in colleges and universities.

By 2010, Chinese officials estimate, at least 20 percent of high school grads will be enrolled in some form of higher education; that number is expected to rise to 50 percent by 2050. China currently has about 20 million students pursuing higher education.

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