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Reflections on Higher Education Expansion: An Empirical Study of Return to Education for Rural and Urban Residents in China

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DOI: 10.25236/icited.2021.138


Jie Ding

Corresponding Author

Jie Ding


China’s higher education has moved from the mass to universalization, with an enrolment rate rising from 15% in 2002 to 51.6% in 2019. Based on “human capital” theory, it is generally believed that this expansion will lead to increasing social and individual return. However, as this burgeoning growth only took 17 years, some researchers concerned on its possible negative effects such as the unguaranteed education quality, the enlarged educational inequity, and education inflation, etc. As little research has done to explore the impact of education expansion on above problems, this paper, based on the latest data set of CGSS 2017, aims to reflect on the higher education expansion from the perspectives of overall return rate, the rural-urban discrepancy and the potential generation differences. This study adopted Mincer’s model as the base for return to education and OLS as the estimator for the regression analysis. The results showed that overall return to education for the chosen sample (N=5043) was 9.4%, and the return rate in urban areas (11.3%) was much higher than rural areas (6.7%). Meanwhile, the return rate for sampling group 2 (respondents born during 1980-1999) was 13%, significantly higher than that of group 1 (respondents born during 1960-1979), at 7.8%. It is also found that contradictory to rural-urban widening income gap between group 1 and 2, their difference in educational return rate turned to be slight (12% and 12.9%), so it revealed that other factors such as the quality of education or family background might be more influential for the urban-rural inequity.


Universalization of higher education; rural-urban inequity; return to education