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In China, kindergarten costs more than college

In Beijing, sending a child to kindergarten costs as much as $660 a month, compared with $102 a month for the country's top college. 

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"We are always comparing," says Lu Qi, a 32-year-old technical manager at a BluRay DVD manufacturer who began last June to look for a kindergarten that would take his 2-year- old boy next September.

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"If other parents are sending their children to preschool and you don't, your child won't have any playmates," he worries. "Parents don't want their kids to lose right from the starting line: If just one family sends his kid to kindergarten, everybody will."

"If they don't mix, they won't learn to communicate properly," adds Ms. Li. "We want our boy to learn social skills at kindergarten."

Hao Jianqiu, headmistress of Donghuamen kindergarten near the Forbidden City, one of the most highly regarded in Beijing, says, "Parents are definitely paying more attention nowadays to preschool. Their children carry the whole family's hopes on their shoulders; if their education is a failure, the family fails."

"The good thing is that parents spend more today on preschool" Ms. Hao adds. "The bad thing is that it puts huge pressure on the children."

It is common for 3-year-olds in Beijing kindergartens to learn English, and not unusual for them to take after-school classes in music, tae kwon do, or chess, which cost extra.

As a public school, whose teachers' salaries are paid by the state, Donghuamen charges a government-approved 1,000 renminbi a month for basic tuition. But the kindergarten will be able to take only 110 of the 800 children who have applied for places next September, Hao says.

Mr. Xing put his boy, Xing Yuchen, down for Donghuamen, but he says he was given to understand that the toddler would stand a chance of being accepted only if he attended weekly preparation and evaluation classes with one of his parents. Neither his mother nor father could afford to take time off work to do that.

Two other reasonably affordable public schools in the district told Xing he did not stand a chance of getting his son in (because, he believes, he lacks the right connections).

The dramatic shortage of places in public schools has created a huge demand for privately run kindergartens, which can charge what they like for highly variable services. Many of them simply offer to look after the children, "but if that's all I wanted I'd let my mother do it," says Xing.

He has pinned his hopes on a city-run kindergarten that gives priority to Muslim children – Xing belongs to the Hui Muslim minority – but that school, too, is oversub-scribed. "One of my relatives is pay-ing 4,500 renminbi ($660) a month for kindergarten, and a colleague at work is paying 3,700 ($544)," Xing says. If the Muslim kindergarten option doesn't work out, he will have to dig into his savings.

"We don't want to spend that much, but if we have no choice, we will have to," he says, shrugging. "We don't want Xing Yuchen to be behind when he goes to elementary school."

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As China becomes a competitive market-oriented economy with a growing middle class, parents say that to get good jobs, their children need a good education. As in the US and Japan, the stressful race to get into the best universities now starts with entry into the 'right' kindergarten.