What is Keeping the Poor out of College? Enrollment Rates, Educational Barriers and College Matriculation in China

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China Agricultural Economic Review, Vol. 3, page(s): 131 - 149


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Opportunities to go to college and earn a degree have risen dramatically in China. Government investment into the college systems has skyrocketed and the size of universities has increased by more than five times over the past decade. With the rise in the opportunity to go to college, several questions naturally arise: Are the rural poor—perhaps those that would most benefit individually as well as provide spillovers to their home communities—being systematically excluded? If they are, what are the barriers that are keeping them from having access to higher education?

The overall goal of this paper is to answer these questions. To do so, we combine two sets of our own primary survey data. One survey covers a group of randomly selected high school students from the poor parts of Shaanxi province, one of China’s poorest provinces. The other survey is a census of all freshman entering into four universities in three poor provinces. With these data we seek to identify if China’s rural poor are being systematically excluded from the university system, and if so, why.

In the first part of the results section of the paper, we show that the participation rate of the poor accessing to college education is substantially lower than the students from nonpoor families. Clearly, there are barriers that are keeping the rural poor out. In the rest of the paper, we examine two general categories of barriers. First, according to our data from Shaanxi province, it does not appear that any real barriers appear at the period of time between the final year of high school and the first year of college. We find no empirical evidence that the College Entrance Exam (CEE) is biased against the poor; the exam scores of poor students are virtually the same as the exam scores of nonpoor students, holding all other factors constant. There is some evidence that the nature of the CEE process—particularly that the timing of when students find out about financial aid—distorts the decisions of poorer students regarding what college to attend and what major to pursue. At the same time, however, we observe that the admission rates between poor and nonpoor are statistically the same when poor students are admitted to university. Contrary to commonly held beliefs, we find that virtually every student who passes the entrance exam (poor and nonpoor alike) is able to find a way to pay the fees and tuition charges that are demanded upon matriculation and is able to enter college, despite the high costs.

Therefore, the paper concludes that if the real barriers are not at the time of admissions to college, there must be a second, remaining set of systematic barriers that prevent poor children from ever making it to the point where they take the CEE. In fact, a close reading of the literature and some of our own data demonstrate that the rural education system—in general—is putting rural children at a severe disadvantage at almost every point of the educational process (low rates of enrollment into early childhood education; low quality elementary schools; poor nutrition and low quality boarding facilities; high levels of high school tuition; a migrant schooling system that is outside of the public education system).

The paper concludes that the real barriers keeping the rural poor from pursuing a college education are being erected early in their educational experience—as early as preschool and elementary school—and are present throughout the entire schooling system.

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