In line with global trends, China experienced a rapid expansion in its higher education system in the second half of the twentieth century, and has seen especially large growth since the early 2000s. The expansion of higher education means an increase in the total quantity of educational opportunities. Although it is expected that education expansion can lead to a more equalized distribution of educational opportunities, based on the extant research in China, there is currently no consensus regarding the impact of higher education expansion on equality in educational opportunity. Moreover, only a few researchers have examined the difference in its impact between elite and non-elite higher education. By analyzing the data from the Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS) 2015, this study aims to investigate the relationship between higher education expansion and inequalities in educational opportunities in the context of China and to analyze the difference in the influence of this expansion between elite and non-elite higher education. The findings of this study show that, except for gender disparity, inequalities affected by household registration, family economic status, and parental education level were not ameliorated after expansion. In addition, the decrease in gender inequality in access to higher education was greater in elite than non-elite higher education. Possible reasons and policy implications are given based on the data analysis in this paper.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Arum, R., Gamoran, A., & Shavit, Y. (2007). More inclusion than diversion: Expansion, differentiation, and market structure in higher education. In Y. Shavit, R. Arum, A. Gamoran, & G. Menahem (Eds.), Stratification in higher education: A comparative study (pp. 63–86). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Barone, C., Triventi, M., & Assirelli, G. (2018). Explaining social inequalities in access to university: a test of rational choice mechanisms in Italy. European Sociological Review, 34(5), 554–569.
Blanden, J., & Machin, S. (2004). Educational Inequality and the Expansion of UK Higher Education. Scottish Journal of Political Economy, 51(2), 230–249.
Blank, R. M. (1995). Outlook for the U.S. labor market and prospects for wage entry jobs. In G. Nightingale & R. Havenman (Eds.), The work alternative (pp. 33–69). Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.
Bol, T., Witschge, J., Van de Werfhorst, H. G., & Dronkers, J. (2014). Curricular tracking and central examinations: Counterbalancing the impact of social background on student achievement in 36 countries. Social Forces, 92(4), 1545–1572.
Boliver, V. (2010). Expansion, differentiation, and the persistence of social class inequalities in British higher education. Higher Education, 61(3), 229–242.
Bourdieu, P. (1990). Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. In Translated by Richard Nice. London, Newbury Park: Sage Publications.
Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J. (1979). The inheritors: French students and their relation to culture (R. Nice, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1964).
Bratti, M., Checchi, D., & De Blasio, G. (2008). Does the Expansion of Higher Education Increase the Equality of Educational Opportunities? Evidence from Italy. Labour, 22(s1), 53–88.
Breen, R., & Goldthorpe, J. (1997). Explaining educational differentials: Towards a formal rational action theory. Rationality and Society, 9(3), 275–305.
Breen, R., Luijkx, R., Muller, W., & Pollak, R. (2009). Long-term Trends in Educational Inequality in Europe: Class Inequalities and Gender Differences. European Sociological Review, 26(1), 31–48.
Breen, R., & Yaish, M. (2006). Testing the Breen-Goldthorpe model of educational decision making. In S. L. Morgan, D. B. Grusky, & G. S. Fields (Eds.), Mobility and Inequality. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Buchmann, C., Condron, D. J., & Roscigno, V. J. (2010). Shadow education, American style: Test preparation, the SAT and college enrollment. Social forces, 89(2), 435–461.
Central Committee of Communist Parity of China (1980). The Central Committee of CPC’s open letter to the communist party members and communist youth league members on population control.
Central Institute of Educational Research. (1984). Chinese education statistical yearbook, 1949-81. Beijing: China Encyclopedia Publication Press.
Chang, D. F. (2018). Effects of higher education expansion on gender parity: a 65-year trajectory in Taiwan. Higher Education, 76(3), 449–466.
Chesters, J., & Watson, L. (2013). Understanding the persistence of inequality in higher education: evidence from Australia. Journal of Education Policy, 28(2), 198–215.
China Statistical Yearbook (n.d.) Total number of newly enrolled students. Retrieved from http://data.stats.gov.cn/easyquery.htm?cn=C01
Collins, R. (1979). The credential society. New York: Academic.
Featherman, D. L., & Hauser, R. M. (1978). Opportunity and change. New York: Academic Press.
Garnier, M., Hage, J., & Fuller, B. (1989). The strong state, social class, and controlled school expansion in France, 1881-1975. American Journal of Sociology, 95(2), 279–306.
Hao, D. (2010). Inequalities of the mobility: Research on the acquisition of status of Chinese urban citizens. Beijing: China Renmin University Press.
He, D. (1998). Important education literature in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-75. Haikou: Hainan Press.
Higher Education Act (1998). Retrieved from http://old.moe.gov.cn//publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_619/200407/1311.html
Holm, A., & Breen, R. (2016). Behavioral and statistical models of educational inequality. Rationality and Society, 28(3), 270–298.
Huang, N., Tan, Y., & Feng, S. (2015). Employment Situation of University Graduates and Gender Differences ——An Empirical Study Based on Employment Data of a University. Economic Science, 37(4), 116–128.
Ilie, S., & Rose, P. (2018). Who benefits from public spending on higher education in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa? Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 48(4), 630–647.
Ishida, H. (2007). Japan: Educational expansion and inequality in access to higher education. In Y. Shavit, R. Arum, A. Gamoran, & G. Menahem (Eds.), Stratification in higher education: A comparative study (pp. 63–86). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Jones, S., Pampaka, M., Swain, D., & Skyrme, J. (2017). Contextualising degree-level achievement: an exploration of interactions between gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status and school type at one large UK university. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 22(4), 455–476.
Jung, J., & Lee, S. J. (2016). Influence of university prestige on graduate wage and job satisfaction: the case of South Korea. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 38(3), 297–315.
Li, C. (2010). Expansion of higher education and inequality in opportunity of education: A study on the effect of “Kuozhao” policy on equalization of educational attainment. Sociological Research, 3, 82–113.
Li, A. (2019). Unfulfilled Promise of Educational Meritocracy? Academic Ability and China’s Urban-Rural Gap in Access to Higher Education. Chinese Sociological Review, 1–32.
Li, W., & Min, W. (2001). An analysis of the current and potential scale of Chinese higher education. Journal of Higher Education, 22(2), 27–31.
Lievens, F., Patterson, F., Corstjens, J., Martin, S., & Nicholson, S. (2016). Widening access in selection using situational judgement tests: evidence from the UKCAT. Medical education, 50(6), 624–636.
Liu, H. (1991). Current elementary education system and reforms. Education Research and Experiment, 1, 5–8.
Liu, J. (2006). Higher education expansion and inequalities of educational opportunities 1978-2003. Society, 26(3), 158–179.
Liu, Y. (2013). Meritocracy and the Gaokao: a survey study of higher education selection and socio-economic participation in East China. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 34(5-6), 868–887.
Liu, J. (2014). Ability and Background: Analysis of Mechanisms Affecting Access to Higher Education. Social Science in China, 8, 109.
Liu, Y. (2019). Choices, risks and rational conformity: extending Boudon’s positional theory to understand higher education choices in contemporary China. Higher Education, 77(3), 525–540.
Liu, Y., Green, A., & Pensiero, N. (2016). Expansion of higher education and inequality of opportunities: a cross-national analysis. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 38(3), 242–263.
Lucas, S. (2001). Effectively Maintained Inequality: Education Transitions, Track Mobility, and Social Background Effects. American Journal of Sociology, 106(6), 1642–1690.
Lucas, S. (2009). Stratification theory, socioeconomic background, and educational attainment: a formal analysis. Ration. Soc., 21, 459–511.
Luo, Y., Guo, F., & Shi, J. (2018). Expansion and inequality of higher education in China: how likely would Chinese poor students get to success? Higher Education Research & Development, 37(5), 1015–1034.
Mare, R. D. (1980). Social background and school continuation decisions. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 75(370), 295–305.
Mare, R. D. (1981). Change and stability in educational stratification. American Sociological Review, 46(1), 72–87.
Marginson, S. (2016a). The worldwide trend to high participation higher education: Dynamics of social stratification in inclusive systems. Higher Education, 72(4), 413–434.
Marginson, S. (2016b). High participation systems of higher education. The Journal of Higher Education, 87(2), 243–271.
Marginson, S. (2018). Higher education, economic inequality and social mobility: Implications for emerging East Asia. International Journal of Educational Development, 63, 4–11.
McCowan, T. (2007). Expansion without equity: An analysis of current policy on access to higher education in Brazil. Higher Education, 53(5), 579–598.
Mendoza, O. M. V. (2018). Heterogeneous determinants of educational achievement and inequality across urban China. China Economic Review, 51, 129–148.
Ministry of Education. (1998). Education Promotion Plan for the 21st Century. Retrieved from http://old.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/s6986/200407/2487.html
Ministry of Education. (1999). Decision on Deepening Educational Reform and Pressing Ahead Quality Education in an All-Around Way. Retrieved from http://old.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_177/200407/2478.html
Ministry of Education (2012). Statistic bulletin on the development of education for 2010. Retrieved from http://old.moe.gov.cn//publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_633/201203/xxgk_132634.html
Ministry of Education (2015). The general situation of education in China: An overview of the educational development in 2013. Retrieved from http://old.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/s5990/201503/185430.html
National Survey Research Center (NSRC). (2018). Chinese National Survey Data Archive. Retrieved from http://cnsda.ruc.edu.cn/index.php?r=site/article&id=164
Ou, D., & Hou, Y. (2019). Bigger Pie, Bigger Slice? The Impact of Higher Education Expansion on Educational Opportunity in China. Research in Higher Education, 60(3), 358–391.
Park, H. (2007). South Korea: Educational expansion and inequality of opportunity for higher education. In Y. Shavit, R. Arum, A. Gamoran, & G. Menahem (Eds.), Stratification in higher education: A comparative study (pp. 87–112). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Pfeffer, F., & Persistent, T. (2008). Inequality in educational attainment and its institutional context. European Sociological Review, 24(5), 543–565.
Pizmony-Levy, O., Livneh, I., Arviv-Elysahiv, R., & Yogev, A. (2012). The development of two-year technological colleges in Israel and its implications for stratification in higher education. In A. W. Wiseman, A. Chasemayoral, T. Janis, & A. Sachdev (Eds.), Community colleges worldwide: Investigating the global phenomenon (pp. 183-212). Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
Qian, H., & Walker, A. (2015). The education of migrant children in shanghai: the battle for equity. International Journal of Educational Development, 44, 74–81.
Raftery, A., & Hout, M. (1993). Maximally Maintained Inequality: Expansion, Reform, and Opportunity in Irish Education, 1921-75. Sociology of Education, 66(1), 41–62.
Rahona López, M. (2009). Equality of opportunities in Spanish higher education. Higher Education, 58(3), 285–306.
Reardon, S. F. (2013). No rich child left behind. New York Times, 4(28), 13.
Roksa, et al. (2007). United States: Changes in higher education and social stratification. In Y. Shavit, R. Arum, A. Gamoran, & G. Menahem (Eds.), Stratification in higher education: A comparative study (pp. 165–194). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Schindler, S., & Lörz, M. (2011). Mechanisms of social inequality development: Primary and secondary effects in the transition to tertiary education between 1976 and 2005. European Sociological Review, 28(5), 647–660.
Shao, C. (2016). Education expansion and gender difference in education attainment (1978-2008). Youth Studies, 401, 10–19.
Sieben, I., & De Graaf, P. M. (2003). The total impact of the family on educational attainment. European Societies, 5, 33–68.
Smelser, N. J., & Lipset, S. M. (1966). Social structure and mobility in economic development. Chicago: Aldine.
Stocké, V. (2007). Explaining educational decision and effects of families’ social class position: An empirical test of the Breen- Goldthorpe model of educational attainment. European Sociological Review, 23(4), 505–519.
Triventi, M. (2013). The role of higher education stratification in the reproduction of social inequality in the labor market. Res. Soc. Stratif. Mobil., 32, 45–63.
Tutić, A. (2017). Revisiting the Breen–Goldthorpe Model of educational stratification. Rationality and Society, 29(4), 389–407.
Yang, Z. (2017). The impact of higher education expansion intergenerational transmission of education in China. Journal of Dalian University of Technology, 38(1), 119–125.
Yang, Q., & Jian, L. (2014). Can education expansion lead to equality of education? Management World, 8, 55–67.
Yang, J., et al. (2019). College Expansion in China and Evaluation of Stratified Higher Education Access. Research in Educational Development, 39(7), 13–20.
You, Yuanyuan. (2017). Words from Peking’s champion in Gaokao. Netease News. 2017.06.25. Retrieved from http://bj.news.163.com/17/0625/08/CNOUS0E204388CSA.html
Zha, Q. (2009). Diversification or homogenization: How governments and markets have combined to (re) shape Chinese higher education in its recent massification process. Higher Education, 58(1), 41–58.
Zhang, Z., & Chen, Q. (2013). College expansion and gender equalization in higher education: An empirical study based on 2008 Chinese general social survey. The Study of Sociology, 173–196.
Zhang, D., & Li, L. (2019). Re-analysis of Regional Differences between Enrollment Expansion and Higher Education Enrollment Opportunities. Peking University Education Review, 1, 11.
This study is supported by Humanities and Social Sciences projects of the Ministry of Education (Grant No. 18YJA 880104), Beijing Philosophy and Social Science Planning Project (Grant No. 15JYA002), and Tsinghua University Independent Research Project (Grant No. 2016THZWYX11).
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Wu, L., Yan, K. & Zhang, Y. Higher education expansion and inequality in educational opportunities in China. High Educ 80, 549–570 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-020-00498-2
- Higher education expansion
- Educational opportunities