Educational Inequality in China

China Daily has an article titled Serious gap in higher education opportunities based upon study results from the working group on "Research into Equity Issues in Chinese Higher Education."  The text is enough to give people headaches, so I will summarize the results in this table (where each column is supposed to add up to 100% within rounding error):

Educational Attaiment Rural Urban
Elementary school 51.5 % 16.3 %
Junior middle school 41.5 % 32.4 %
Senior middle school   6.0 % 21.0 %
Techincal secondary school   0.8 % 13.2 %
Junior college   0.2 % 11.1 %
University education 0.02 % 5.63 %
Graduate school education 0.001 % 0.323 %

The conclusion said that there is "a widening education gap exists between China's rural and urban populations."  To say 'widening' implies a longitudinal study, but the article reports only data for one point in time.  In any case, there is no doubt that there is a wide gap between urban and rural residents on their education attainment at this time.

But there are some methodological issues here, because something is askew and misleading in the presentation of the results.  This is best by referring to some comparable data taken from the USA.  The source is the Current Poplulation Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau for March 2003, which I am currently re-analyzying for job-related reasons.

In the following table, the data were obtained by a tabulation of 131,103 survey respondents age 25 or older.  MSA stands for Metropolitan Statistical Area, which is a standard measure used by the U.S. Census Bureau to define an urbanized area with a total population of at least 100,000.  Again, the percentages in each column adds up to 100% within rounding error.

Educational Attaiment Non-MSA (Rural) MSA (Urban)
Grade school   3.3 %   3.7 %
Junior high school   4.0 %   2.5 %
High school 64.3 % 55.0 %
Technical/occupation school   5.3 %   4.0 %
Junior college   3.5 %   4.0 %
University education 13.3 % 20.2 %
Graduate school education   6.4 % 10.6 %

If we compare the Chinese versus American data, there is the obvious point that educational opportunities are much better in the United States.  This is not in doubt by anyone, but I want to pursue some other points here.

The first thing to note is that the US tabulation is based upon persons age 25 or older, by standard convention.  Since the subject is educational attainment, it makes no sense to include all persons from infants and up: the 2-year-old has not even entered grade school yet.  It does not even make sense to base it upon all adults, since very few 18-year-olds have had the time to earn a doctorate degree yet.  This is why US data are based upon age 25+ by standard convention.  It is not clear what the base is for the Chinese data.

The second thing to note is that the US data were based upon interviewing people at their current residences.  So you can imagine a story like this: 

A child was born in a rural village out in the Midwest and attended a small local school; through intelligence and diligence, she excels in study and wins university scholarships, eventually getting a doctoral degree in molecular biology.  Where does she live today?  With high probability, she does not live in her village of birth; instead she is more likely to be teaching at a university or working in a research institute located in an urban area.

Thus, people with better educational attainment are more likely to be found living in urban areas today due to the matching job opportunities, regardless of their rural-urban origins.  So the US data reflect urban-rural job demand situations in addition to any urban-rural educational opportunity factors.

Similarly with Chinese data, if the information is collected from people based upon their current places of residence, we would have to wonder why anyone who has spent many years getting a doctorate would be residing now in a peasant village that is hours of walking from the nearest paved road.

I don't doubt that rural children are handicapped in their pursuit of educational opportunities anywhere in the world.  A Chinese case study would be Ma Yan and her current travails (see previous post).  I am not quite certain what the Chinese data here are really saying in the quantitative sense if they come from a general population survey based upon current residency.  It may tell something, but it is not what it is being positioned as.