Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Program on Energy and Sustainable Development Stanford University

Research at PESD

Can Life Counselors Curb Dropout in Rural Chinese Schools?

REAP Project


In China, the social and economic gap between rural and urban areas remains immense, especially within the realm of education. While nearly all students in large urban cities attend high school, less than half of poor, rural children will enter an academic secondary school.

As China continues to develop, the demand for unskilled labor will decline, leaving junior high dropouts with fewer employment opportunities. In order to sustain economic growth, China will need to supply a more educated workforce to meet an increasing demand for skilled labor. Therefore, given that two out of every three children grow up in rural areas, it is crucial that the rural dropout issue be addressed.

There are several factors that may influence a student’s decision to drop out of middle school. Rising wages throughout the country and increased mobility tempt poor students to leave school early to join the unskilled workforce. Moreover, public high school tuition in China is not only expensive - it is the highest in the world. Therefore, a secondary education is unaffordable for poor families, and seeing no hope for attending high school, students may decide to drop out before graduating from junior high.

However, in addition to economic influences, psychological and social factors may lead students to drop out of middle school. In a previous REAP project in which students were promised a scholarship if they stayed in school, some students nevertheless left, citing a lack of social support from teachers and peers as a main cause. Due to the competitive nature of the education system in which middle school teachers are rewarded for students who enter prestigious high schools, teachers are incentivized to pay greater attention to better-performing students. As a result, poorer-performing students report being ignored or even ridiculed by their teachers. Furthermore, it is common for a group of students who feel alienated to exert negative influence upon each other and encourage one another to drop out, thereby resulting in entire cliques of students leaving school.

A common approach to dealing with students’ psychological and social problems is through school life counselors. Rural teachers usually do not have the incentives or training to care for students beyond their formal responsibilities; parents are often busy working, many of them far away from home, and have little time to build significant relationships with their teenage children. However, a life counselor can be hired to fill this “care gap” and help students’ work through psychological and social problems. These counselors’ main duty is to serve as a school-based support system for students, and becoming an important resource to students who feel isolated in their school community. Furthermore, these counselors teach students “life skills,” such as how to deal with emotions, seek help, and develop more positive relationships with their teachers and peers; educational programs such as this may equip students with the tools to address their sense of isolation at school.

However, can life counselors curb dropout in schools in poor, rural areas of China?

One out of four students drop out before graduating from junior high. Part of the problem is that students feel like the school does not care about them and lack a sense of belonging.


REAP has three objectives to test the efficacy of life counseling in China’s rural schools:

  • Develop a comprehensive life counselor training program that is cost effective, can be implemented on a larger scale, and that successfully prepares counselors to serve as support and educational resources in poor, rural schools.
  • Provide clear, quantitative evidence about the effect of one-on-one counseling and life skills training on the dropout rates, psychological health, and educational performance of junior high students.
  • If the life counseling program demonstrates a positive impact on rural students, REAP will work with policymakers to extend the program to areas in which the dropout rates are chronic. 

Can life counselors help students feel cared for at school and help reduce dropout?


We work with existing teachers at the schools to train them in how to conduct one-on-one counseling.

The training is a week-long retreat led by professional counselors at the university level from Beijing Normal University and Beijing Forestry University and experienced school counselors.

Furthermore, to ensure that life counselors are successfully integrated into schools, principals and teachers will participate in trainings to help them understand the role of life counselors and when to refer students to them.

We hired professional school and university counselors from Beijing to train rural teachers on a standardized approach to one-on-one counseling and how to teach a life skills course.

Aside from one-on-one counseling, life counselors will teach a scripted life skills courses to first-year and second-year junior high students. In the first few months of implementation, when we expect teachers to face the most difficulty, we will provide technical support in the form of weekly debriefs and a 24/7 hotline. During their second year at the school, the life counselors will maintain open office hours for all students but will shift to teaching life skills to and counseling second-year and third-year students, thus allowing them to continue working with the same class of students.


Experts from Stanford University, Peking University, and Beijing Normal University will collaborate to develop a full life counseling curriculum, training program, and protocol for bringing life counselors to rural schools. Then, a pilot program will be conducted in a handful of rural schools to develop and test aspects of the life counseling approach and curriculum prior to the larger scale randomized controlled trial. The life counseling trial program will involve 60 randomly selected schools in Dingxi and Tianshui, two cities in Gansu province. The program will be in place for two school years, starting in March 2013 and ending in March, 2015.


In September 2013 and March 2014, we will return to the schools to conduct a midline and evaluation (endline) survey, respectively. We conducted a baseline survey in September 2012. 


The project is ongoing.


Ford Foundation