Gaoyuan Liu’s suggestion to compare answers was rejected outright after a difficult math exam. “Don’t involute yourself,” her classmates told her. Gaoyuan Liu, an LSA transfer student who then studied at one of the most prestigious universities in China, never felt the ubiquitous presence of the word “involution” in her and her peers’ lives as much as she did that day in the classroom.

The term “involution” was popularized by Clifford Geertz, an eminent cultural anthropologist who used it as a description of the agricultural process in which refinements of wet-rice cultivation led to more and more intricate labor use, without creating significant progress in other social sectors such as technology and politics. The use of the word has unexpectedly stepped out of the academic world and gained prominence among young people in China in recent years.

In China, this term has been borrowed to describe the phenomenon where the competition for social and economic resources is intensified. With more and more people opting into this game, the standard of “being average” increases dramatically.

“The result (of involution) is usually that everyone puts more efforts to meet the raised standard, but due to the fixed amount of available resources, no one in the competition yields better returns,” said one of the most up-voted comments on Zhihu, the “Chinese Quora.”

Involution didn’t make its entry to the public consciousness until recent years, though, as Gaoyuan recalled, her past 20 years of life had always been played out under “the involution rules.” 

“Enrollment rates of magnet elementary, middle and high schools are extremely low,” Liu said. “Before getting into college, I have already been trained to coexist with and succeed in competition.”

Drawing a comparison with her 15-year-old sister, who is in eighth grade, Gaoyuan said that there is an obvious intensification in the trend of involution. She said, “They are already learning and taking exams that are originally oriented towards college students … When I was in middle school, I took two extracurricular courses or so every weekend, which is already hectic. Now my sister’s weekend schedules are fully packed by extracurricular activities — unimaginable.” 

For many young people in China, involution is sometimes an entrenched institution rather than a personal choice. For example, at Gaoyuan’s previous university, it is a written rule that the number of As assigned in every course, including A-s and A+s, should be manipulated to fall within a 30-percent quota. 

Ting, a student at a first-tier university in China, questioned the meaning of this by-design competitive mechanism. 

“Higher education should not only be about getting good grades and building up resumes. A 4.0 GPA isn’t necessarily indicative of great command of knowledge. But I can’t resist. I am afraid of falling behind. I feel trapped,” She said. 

Biao Xiang, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oxford, referred to this as “a competition with no option of failure or withdrawal” in an interview.

Behind this endless cycle of anxiety lies the explosive growth of college degree holders. 

In China, the gross tertiary enrollment rate rose from 3.1% in 1990 and 7.8% in 2000 to 29.7% in 2013, nearly a tenfold expansion compared to two decades ago.

“In the 1980s, the title of college student itself equated the definition of ‘elite.’ Today, higher education becomes another round of elitism sorting,” pointed out by Jingjing Xu in an Sanlian Lifeweek article

“In addition to the scarcity of resources, the monotonic standard of success is an important reason,” said Changyuan Qiu, a junior studying computer science at the University of Michigan-Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute.

This tendency is not endemic to China. Between 2000 and 2014, the number of students in higher education globally more than doubled, rising from 100 million to 207 million, according to a report published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization together with UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning and UNESCO GEM Report. In the United States, the growth is particularly remarkable. According to the Census Bureau, reported college enrollment has increased elevenfold since 1940, from 1.5 million to 17.9 million.

Is U.S. higher education confronted with the same trend of involution? Views on this question run the gamut. Having studied at both the University of Michigan and SJTU, Changyuan thinks that the minimum threshold grading scale commonly adopted by American universities prevents the destructive competition from happening. Under this system, students are evaluated based on their own mastery of the materials, not the comparison with peers.

“At U-M, as long as you get a 93+ overall score, you are guaranteed an A,” he said. 

Fatma Müge Göçek, a professor of sociology and women’s gender studies, attended college from 1975 to 1978 in Istanbul, Turkey, came to the U.S. in 1981 and received her doctorate from Princeton University in 1988. She asserted that signs of involution had been witnessed in both Turkey and the United States in recent decades. 

“I think it is definitely involution: the demand for degrees goes up constantly while the supply of degrees can never catch up with it, leading the education pie to be more competitively divided among a larger number of candidates,” Göçek said. 

She warns that despite facing fierce competition, Generation Y — also known as Millennials — is likely to be the first generation in recent American history that makes substantially less than their parents. 

“Findings demonstrate that the U.S. economic boom in the past is over — millennials will make 20% less than their parents’ generation, and millennials with a college degree will make about 40% more than their less educated counterparts,” she said. “This result is certainly partially due to involution, but it is also due to global competition: other countries have copied the U.S. economic boom, thereby taking away larger chunks of business from the U.S.”

Caught in the middle of overwhelming competition traps and expected returns in the gutter, how should college students navigate education, mental health and their future? The question demands not only addressing the idea of involution, but rethinking how we face it.