Zhang Xiaoping’s mother dropped out of school after sixth grade. Her father, one of 10 children, never attended.
But Ms. Zhang, 20, is part of a new generation of Chinese taking advantage of a national effort to produce college graduates in numbers the world has never seen before.
A pony-tailed junior at a new university here in southern China, Ms. Zhang has a major in English. But her unofficial minor is American pop culture, which she absorbs by watching episodes of television shows like “The Vampire Diaries” and “America’s Next Top Model” on the Internet.
It is all part of her highly specific ambition: to work some day for a Chinese automaker and provide the cultural insights and English fluency the company needs to supply the next generation of fuel-efficient taxis that New York City plans to choose in 2021. “It is my dream,” she said, “and I will devote myself wholeheartedly to it.”
Even if her dream is only dorm-room reverie, China has tens of millions of Ms. Zhangs — bright young people whose aspirations and sheer numbers could become potent economic competition for the West in decades to come.
China is making a $250 billion-a-year investment in what economists call human capital. Just as the United States helped build a white-collar middle class in the late 1940s and early 1950s by using the G.I. Bill to help educate millions of World War II veterans, the Chinese government is using large subsidies to educate tens of millions of young people as they move from farms to cities.
The aim is to change the current system, in which a tiny, highly educated elite oversees vast armies of semi-trained factory workers and rural laborers. China wants to move up the development curve by fostering a much more broadly educated public, one that more closely resembles the multifaceted labor forces of the United States and Europe.
It is too early to know how well the effort will pay off.
While potentially enhancing China’s future as a global industrial power, an increasingly educated population poses daunting challenges for its leaders. With the Chinese economy downshifting in the past year to a slower growth rate, the country faces a glut of college graduates with high expectations and limited opportunities.
Much depends on whether China’s authoritarian political system can create an educational system that encourages the world-class creativity and innovation that modern economies require, and that can help generate enough quality jobs.
China also faces formidable difficulties in dealing with widespread corruption, a sclerotic political system, severe environmental damage, inefficient state-owned monopolies and other problems. But if these issues can be surmounted, a better educated labor force could help China become an ever more formidable rival to the West.
“It will move China forward in its economy, in scientific innovation and politically, but the new rising middle class will also put a lot of pressure on the government to change,” said Wang Huiyao, the director general of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based research group.
To the extent that China succeeds, its educational leap forward could have profound implications in a globalized economy in which a growing share of goods and services is traded across international borders. Increasingly, college graduates all over the world compete for similar work, and the boom in higher education in China is starting to put pressure on employment opportunities for college graduates elsewhere — including in the United States.
China’s current five-year plan, through 2015, focuses on seven national development priorities, many of them new industries that are in fashion among young college graduates in the West. They are alternative energy, energy efficiency, environmental protection, biotechnology, advanced information technologies, high-end equipment manufacturing and so-called new energy vehicles, like hybrid and all-electric cars.
China’s goal is to invest up to 10 trillion renminbi, or $1.6 trillion, to expand those industries to represent 8 percent of economic output by 2015, up from 3 percent in 2010.
At the same time, many big universities are focusing on existing technologies in industries where China poses a growing challenge to the West.
Beijing Geely University, a private institution founded in 2000 by Li Shufu, the chairman of the automaker Geely, already has 20,000 students studying a range of subjects, but with an emphasis on engineering and science, particularly auto engineering.
Mr. Li also endowed and built Sanya University, a liberal arts institution with 20,000 students where Ms. Zhang is a student, and opened a 5,000-student vocational community college in his hometown, Taizhou, to train skilled blue-collar workers.
China’s growing supply of university graduates is a talent pool that global corporations are eager to tap.
“If they went to China for brawn, now they are going to China for brains,” said Denis F. Simon, one of the best-known management consultants specializing in Chinese business.
Multinationals including I.B.M., General Electric, Intel and General Motors have each hired thousands of graduates from Chinese universities.