BEIJING, May 30 -- Many things shrink in an economic crisis - the number of jobs, the volume of exports, the confidence of investors - but few expected a sharp fall in the size of the prospective student population.
This year, fewer students want to participate in the upcoming three-day annual college entrance exam, which has been seen as the make-or-break benchmark for millions of young people since 1977.
Minister of Education Zhou Ji had predicted that the overall number of applicants would exceed 10 million - last year's total was 10.5 million - but figures from local governments suggest the number of students taking part may be far fewer.
In Shandong, a provincial economic powerhouse, education officials said they received 100,000 fewer applicants this year than they did in 2008 - a drop of more than 10 percent.
The country's most populous province, Henan, will see 29,000 fewer people sit the college entrance exam.
And similar falls were reported in Shanghai municipality and Hebei, Beijing's neighboring province.
Some said the global economic crisis is believed to be the reason for the decline.
The exam, which was reinstalled in 1977 after it had been scrapped during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) was initially hailed as a success and one of the first acts of the reform and opening up of China.
In 1977, some 5.7 million people competed for 220,000 college places.
But the college entrance exam has come in for criticism in recent years for relying solely on written tests, with no evaluation of students' overall ability.
The exam has long been considered a life-changing opportunity for high school students seeking a better education and, in turn, a better job. But the economic crisis has had an impact. "Since the financial crisis last year, the grim employment situation has broken the 'employment myth' for those with a college degree. Some students changed their minds about getting a good job through higher education. They simply quit (from taking the exam)," said an anonymous recruitment officer with the Beijing Institute of Technology.
Until the mid-1990s, the government assigned jobs to university graduates. Although that sometimes meant assigning archeology majors to banks or computer geniuses to zoos, said Li Dajun, a retired worker from a State-owned firm in Beijing.
"That's why the college entrance exam was that great opportunity to change our lives. Who could've known it'd be this hard for college kids today to find a job now?" said Li, whose son will graduate from college next month.