Migration, Money, and Mothers

How might the migration of these parents to find work elsewhere affect the education outcomes of their children?

Migration is one of the main ways of alleviating poverty in developing countries, including China. However, migration itself may not be costless.


In China, more and more individuals are choosing to migrate to the city for more opportunities and better pay. Since the 1990s, the size of the Chinese migrating labor force has surpassed 100 million individuals. With this rapid increase, however, a number of concerns have emerged about how this movement might be disrupting the educational achievement of the migrants’ children.

One reason these concerns are arising is that usually when one or both parents migrate to the city, the children are left behind. As a result, they experience less parental supervision of their school attendance and academic performance. Moreover, migrants’ children might receive less encouragement to learn at home after school or experience more pressure to contribute to the housework that the migrating parents used to do.

If such a negative effect does, in fact, exist, then this issue becomes relevant to educational policymakers. For example, boarding schools might hire more teachers and improve their mentoring system. On the other hand, if children of migrants are not negatively affected by their parents’ absence, then educational reform efforts might be better directed toward other problems. 


This project seeks to examine the effect of the migration activities of the father and/or mother on the educational performance of elementary school students (1st to 5th grade).

To achieve this, the project answers the following questions:

  • How does the out-migration of parents affect the educational achievement of their children?
  • Does this effect change based on the gender of the parent out-migrating?
  • Is this effect of out-migration dependent on the wealth of the household?

Our long-term objective is to inform policy-making on whether to modify the educational system to better accommodate the needs of children of migrants.


We randomly selected 36 primary schools in Shaanxi province, one of the poorest provinces in China. REAP conducted a survey covering all 1,646 students entering 6th grade in those schools, as well as their families and homeroom teachers. The surveying process focused on the two key characteristics of student performance and parents' migration as follows:

  • To measure the student academic performance, REAP researchers used the math and Chinese language scores of the students from 1st grade in 2001/2002 through 5th grade in 2005/2006.
  • Students were then interviewed regarding family migration history. This information was cross-checked through phone calls with their parents, as well as through interviews with their respective homeroom teachers who were, to an extent, personally familiar with their students.
  • Finally, to verify whether the impact of migration on educational achievement was dependent on individual or household socioeconomic factors, REAP gathered information on family wealth and background from the parents of the students.

We then analyzed our survey data to compare the academic performance of students with parents who had migrated to those with parents who did not.  By controlling for individual and family background characteristics, we isolated the effect of parent out-migration on their children's academic achievement.  


Unlike the concerns echoed in the literature, our analysis consistently shows that out-migration of parents does not have a detrimental effect on their children’s education. In fact, whenever the father out-migrates, the data shows that on average, the child performs better academically. This may be because the father's migration to the city generates an extra income which provides, for example, better nutrition or textbooks and thus helps the student perform better, outweighing any loss of supervision or encouragement. 

The result that parental migration had positive or no effect on student academic performance was also found to apply regardless of the household’s wealth or family background.

Improving educational quality for students in China is crucial - regardless of the parents’ migration history. However, this study demonstrates that because parental migration does not have a negative effect on student academic achievement, other ways to improve rural education should be emphasized. 


Stanford University, Chinese Academy of Sciences. 


To read more details about the study, see our article below published by the Comparative Economic Studies.