Su Yinyin's family were thrilled when she won a place at university. As impoverished farmers, they knew it promised a comfortable middle-class life and a giant step up the social ladder for their daughter.
But now Su, 21, is wondering whether she can reach the next rung. As she looked around the heaving employment fair in Beijing, where 10,000 job-seekers vied for the attention of recruiters, she acknowledged that her parents' pride was increasingly tinged with anxiety. "When I became a student, it was both happy and worrying for my family," she said. "We are not rich. I took loans for university. I just hope I can get a stable job after graduation and repay them."
More than 6 million Chinese students left university this year and up to a quarter are still struggling to find work. As the global slowdown bites, students such as Su know it can only get worse.
"The grim economic situation poses an unprecedented challenge for college graduates to get a proper job," the ministry of education warned yesterday.
But the problems predate the crisis and mark both a success and failure on China's part. "The number of graduates increased too quickly - by 2006 there were already five times more than in 1999. The labour market can't take that big an increase in such a short time," said Professor Yang Dongping of the Beijing Institute of Technology, the author of a report on graduate employment.
The expansion of higher education reflects China's aspirations: the world's factory needs more skilled workers to move up the chain, away from cheap mass production. Yet there are not yet enough higher-end jobs. Four million graduates in recent years have yet to find their first job, according to officials. However, the true figure is probably higher as the current system relies on reporting by universities, who have a vested interest in showing that graduates can find work.
Graduates are now competing with people made redundant. "I've had interviews, but they want people with experience," said Liu Jing, who has been job-hunting for six months. "There are more graduates, so there are more competitors for every post."
Like Su, she hails from a farming family; she had hoped to earn 2,000-3,000 yuan (£200-£300) a month to pay off her 20,000 yuan education bill. Now the 21-year-old will settle for 1,000 yuan.
Higher expectations are clashing with the deteriorating economic reality.
Until 1981, the government assigned jobs, with those who dreamed of becoming engineers sometimes ending up as cooks or clerks. But while their parents took the work they were given, these students grew up in an age of personal choice. They expect fulfilling jobs and good remuneration; few want to leave the big cities or take up underpaid teaching work.
Guo Qing, 22, should not have been at the fair at all: he found a design job after graduating this summer. But he admitted he packed it in not long afterwards. "I was very picky when looking for jobs before. I felt this or that didn't fit me. Later I realised it was my problem, psychologically," he said. "Our education was idealistic. But you realise the gulf between realism and idealism once you reach the real world. When you're job hunting you have to be practical."
Yang thinks China needs to change, too. "Only 6% of the labour force has higher education, much lower than in most developed countries. There have to be structural problems," he said.
Spending per student has slumped by almost two-thirds and most investment has gone into new buildings. Yang said that meant a drop in teaching quality and an explosion in liberal arts courses, while resource-hungry subjects such as engineering have lagged behind.
The government is reining back expansion and promising more help with job-hunting. But many of this year's graduates are hoping for more direct support. On Sunday, a record 775,000 applicants sat civil service exams - 130,000 more than last year - for only 13,500 jobs.
"I didn't think of beating so many candidates," one graduate told the state media. "But I have to - because I've submitted my résumé to about 60 firms and got only 10 replies, and no offers."
• Additional research by Chen Shi