- The Consequences of Educational Expansion in Reforming China
Educational expansion is one of the most visible, durable, and influential features of modern society. In many countries, there is a widespread tendency of increasing school enrollment across time. Such a process has provided not only more educational opportunity to students, but also more skilled labor force. What are the consequences of educational expansion with regard to education-based inequality and mobility? Particularly, does educational expansion weaken the effects of family background on educational and occupational attainment?
Conventional wisdom might suggest “yes” in both respects. With long-term growth of school enrollments, it was once believed that education becomes an increasingly important mechanism for the transmission of social status. That is, along the process of technological advances and economic development, there tends to be greater equality of opportunity with respect to both educational and occupational attainment. In other words, people's educational achievements would gradually become independent of their family background; when controlling for education, the association between family background and occupational status would also decline over time.
Empirical findings, nonetheless, do not support such claims. Between family background and educational attainment, scholars report a general pattern of “persistent inequality” of educational attainment in most industrial societies. With few exceptions such as Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany in which declining educational inequality is found, the impact of family background on schooling is highly stable across time in many industrial countries. Similarly, on the association between family background and occupational attainment, again, research shows that there is a high degree of temporal stability and broad cross-national commonality in a variety of industrial societies. Although significant deviations from these general patterns do appear, changes tend to be slow over time in these industrial societies.
However, in other societies where dramatic social and political changes take place, the results are different from the general patterns observed mainly in industrial societies. For instance, in Soviet-era Russia, where state policy played a strong role, there was a strengthening effect of family background on access to university. Likewise, in the tumultuous late-Soviet and post-Soviet years, when political chaos and economic crisis in Russia quickly changed school enrollment, the magnitude of family background differentials in access to academic secondary schools increased. Furthermore, during Russia's market transition, the effects of family background on occupational attainment were enlarging, and a pattern of tightening-up social mobility is documented. In China, recent observations suggest the role of family background on educational attainment is growing in certain ways.
By comparing the different results, it is then interesting to ask: Why is there a pattern of largely persistent associations between family background and educational/ occupational attainment in most industrial societies, whereas in societies like Russia and China, strengthening associations are found in these aspects? In my dissertation, I address this empirical puzzle by investigating how educational expansion affects the patterns of education-based inequality and mobility in China's last three decades.
Educational Expansion in China's Reform Period
Over the past three decades, China has successfully liberalized its planned economy and experienced a high rate of economic growth. Along with this process, China expanded on education at all levels. In 1980, the Chinese government set the target of universalizing primary education by the end of the 1980s. In the mid-1980s, the government released two policy documents requiring all children to complete nine years of compulsory education. With increases in educational resources, these goals were largely achieved by the mid-1990s.
Educational expansion at the upper secondary level was much slower. The rate of transition to senior high school, given the completion of junior high school, experienced an initial sharp drop from about 40 percent in the early 1980s to around 20 percent in the early 1990s, and remained relatively stable in the 1990s. The only discernable expansion at the senior high school level seemed to start from 1999: the transition rate went from 24.93 percent in 1999 to 42.24 percent in 2006, namely, increasing by 69.4 percent in just seven years.
The expansion at the college level was even more striking. As Figure 1 shows, the rate of transition to college upon completion of senior high school grew from 5.74 percent in 1982 to nearly 35 percent in 1992; since 1993, however, the transition rate had increased less than 7 percent by 1998. Yet, starting from 1999, the rate has dramatically increased, jumping from 46.1 percent in 1998 to 63.8 percent in 1999 and to 83.5 percent in 2002. In the following four years, the rate decreased a little but still remained as high as 75 percent. From 1999 to 2006, the number of newly-admitted college students increased by about four times.
The relatively quick growth in senior high school education and the radical expansion in higher education in such a short a time (since 1999) was exactly the intended result of the government's new policy launched in 1999. In January of that year, the minister of education of the PRC formally released a policy document aiming to enlarge the coverage of upper secondary level and tertiary level education. Because of the policy, the government increased the target number of school enrollment year by year, resulting in a larger and larger body of college students in subsequent years.
Along with the official intention to make tertiary education more available to the youth, there was a sharp simultaneous state-designed increase in the cost of college since 1999, which was to “marketize higher education.” In the 1980s and early 1990s, Chinese college education was mainly funded by the government—being almost free. Starting in 1994, a small amount of money was charged to all college attendants as tuition and fees. Since 1999, however, college tuition has increased by twice or even three to four times, with its amount at least comparable to the average income per capita for the urban residents, but much higher for rural people.
Because of these changes, China's educational system in the reform-era has two notable structural and institutional features that differ significantly from those in most industrial societies. First, there is a bottleneck structure in school enrollment, with the increase in the rate of transition to senior high school failing to follow the increase in the rate of college transition. As shown in Figure 1, the probability of transition to college was higher than the transition to senior high school since the mid-1980s, and the gap between the two probabilities increased over time, particularly after 1999. Second, recent educational expansion in China (especially since 1999) went through increasing educational cost at the college level, which is seldom the case in previous comparative studies of education- based inequality and mobility.
China in Transition: Increasing Educational Inequality, Less Social Mobility
What are the consequences of China's educational expansion given the important structural and institutional features in the educational system? Can we expect a similar pattern of persistent inequality and stable mobility in China, as compared to industrial societies? My empirical analyses suggest that in many cases China presents a different set of patterns that can shed light for comparative studies.
First, urban-rural and class differentials with regard to access to senior high school increased in the 1990s. After 1999, when expansion of senior high school education occurred, such differentials decreased. I also find that after 1999, when higher education was radically expanded and largely marketized, urban-rural inequality in the transition to college increased, and a father's class status began to play a more significant role in determining one's likelihood of entering college. As a result, the rapid expansion of higher education in China since 1999 mainly helped urban children and children from better-off families. In contrast, in spite of the overall increasing college opportunity, children from rural families experienced a drop in the transition rate in access to higher education. For them, it was not that they “benefited less” from the dramatic expansion of college opportunities, but they did not benefit much at all. As Figure 2 illustrates, the cumulative probability of transition from primary school to college for rural children is rather stable since the late 1990s.
Second, compared to the 1980s, a father's occupation was a more important determinant for a son's occupational attainment in the 1990s, controlling for education. The parameter of intergenerational class immobility is highest since the late 1990s, suggesting even less social mobility under the rapid educational expansion starting from 1999. Rural children, again, were worse off in recent years. Compared to their urban counterparts, their chances of using education for social upward mobility were limited most since the late 1990s. Empirical analysis shows that the association parameter between education and current occupation for rural people is the highest in the 1980s, but the smallest during 1999–2006. It is therefore evident that China's recent educational reforms have ironically restricted the upward mobility channel for the disadvantaged groups (rural people in particular) through college education.
Explaining the Chinese Pattern: Why is China Different?
How to interpret the Chinese pattern? Why is it different from the general patterns observed in many industrial societies? To achieve a compressive understanding of the differences, I initiate a theoretical framework to integrate the existing theoretical accounts and results. The framework has three components. The first component is the mobility strategies adopted by different classes. This part sets up the foundation for a micro-based behavioral model in which we can observe whether different classes' strategies tend to converge or diverge under educational expansion. The second component is the structural and institutional features in the educational system. They represent the scope conditions that restrict class mobility strategy and behavior. The third component is the sociopolitical institutional context, which is particularly about how the state affects the organization of the education system and class structure. In my view, analyzing the interactions between the three components provides a way to interpret how educational expansion affects educational and occupational attainment.
Specifically, when educational expansion happens, if there is a reduction of class differentials in the relative affordability of education and/or in the cognitive ability and educational aspiration, we should naturally expect that the mobility strategies of different classes are inclined to be similar. That is because in this situation education may be as affordable to the lower class as to the higher class, and the risk of maximizing educational attainment downgrades for the lower class. This is exactly the case in many industrial societies where educational opportunity is widely provided and educational cost is uniformly declined. In these societies, education is relatively easy to access and the risk of educational failure weakens. This explains why we find educational inequalities to be stable or declining in these societies.
On the contrary, if a society's educational opportunity is increasing but inadequate and if educational cost is rising at the same time, the lower class's mobility strategies tend to be constrained by their relative ability to afford education and the risk of continuing education. Because educational cost is increasing, education becomes relatively more difficult to afford for the lower class than for the higher class. Because the risk of educational attainment and subsequent job placement can grow with the increasing educational cost, any selection barrier in the educational system tends to prevent a relatively higher proportion of children from the lower class than from the higher class for further education. If this is case, the mobility strategy for the lower class tends to diverge from the higher class under educational expansion, and education-based inequalities should strengthen.
This is what happens in reforming China. Recent educational expansion in China pushes class differentials in the relative affordability of education to rise, and drives the most selective process in the educational system from the college level to the senior higher school level. These institutional and structural changes reinforce the importance of class-based social resources in educational attainment. They also enhance class differentials in the cognitive ability at the senior high school level because the barrier of selection at this level stops a higher proportion of qualified children from the lower class than from the higher class. Combining these factors, I argue that China's particular features in the educational institution (rising educational cost) and educational opportunity structure (the bottleneck structure, i.e., early selection bias at the senior high school level) help to explain why the Chinese pattern is rare in the field.
However, it should be noted that the institutional and structural features in China's educational system are produced by political intervention in a short period of time. In China, the state has a strong tendency to intervene educational expansion through its control over school enrollment and educational cost, which can suddenly change the prospects of educational attainment. In contrast, in many industrial societies, the educational system has gradually expanded over a long time, and state intervention during the process of educational expansion is not as apparent as in China. Based on these considerations, I also incorporate the dimension of sociopolitical institutions into my theoretical framework.
Maocan Guo is a Weatherhead Center Graduate Student Associate. and a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology. His research focuses on educational expansion and social inequality in the labor market.