Transition to higher education in contemporary China: A study of high school graduates in urban Nanjing

Gina W F Lai*, Jing Song, Odalia M H Wong, Xiaotian Feng

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


China has undergone an expansion of higher education in the 1990s. The university enrollment rate among high school graduates increased from 27.3% in 1990 to 87.6% in 2013. At the same time, Chinese universities are stratified into key universities and non-key universities, which differ significantly in resource input and prestige. Chinese parents are found to play an increasingly active role in preparing their children for the competition to get into elite universities. Researchers argue that in the era of mass education, social inequality is effectively maintained through school stratification and raising entrance bars for prestigious institutions. Thus, the focus of educational inequality should move from quantitative to qualitative differences. While educational inequality in China has attracted much research attention in the past decade, little is understood about educational inequality in China in qualitative terms. The present study aims to fill this research gap. Data come from a panel survey of 759 high school graduates in urban Nanjing initiated in 2010. A vast majority of these students (98.4%) were enrolled in post-secondary education in 2012, among whom 96.6% attended colleges or universities in China. Our findings do not show inequality in mere access by family background or high school prestige. However, family backgrounds make a difference in educational destinations (local vs. overseas as well as prestige of the institutions) but the family impact tends to be mediated by high school ranking. The findings suggest meritocratic elitism in mass education in China, which legitimizes the intergenerational transfer of social advantages and mediated role of school in producing educational inequality.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)83-102
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Sociology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2016

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Sociology and Political Science

User-Defined Keywords

  • China
  • educational inequality
  • educational transition
  • school tracking
  • social stratification
  • youth


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