Access to elite education (i.e. acquiring a degree from a prestigious university) has long been believed to be important for elite formation and reproduction. Although there is increasing literature on the returns to elite education, there has been mixed findings in the US context (which can partly be attributed to the typical challenges of selection and data availability) with little discussion on social mobility.
Ruixue Jia, Assistant Professor of Economics at UC San Diego, argues that China provides fertile ground on which to examine the impacts of elite education on social mobility, given its status as the largest “exam country” in the world, with 10 million students taking the gaokao ( 高考) to gain entrance into 2,300 universities of varying tiers. These exam scores are crucial, because they determine the tie and specific university the students are eligible for. Significantly, while 75% of test-takers are accepted into university, only 50% gain acceptance to an elite university. While all Chinese universities recruit via the gaokao, elite colleges recruit first, and are designated as “first tier” universities across all provinces. Only those above the first-tier cutoff are eligible to apply to these elite colleges, with final admission decisions determined by competition between eligible applicants. In China, the exam system is arguably one of the most important institutions, and is often perceived as a ticket to the elite class for the the average commoner. This doesn’t come without controversy: family background is believed to be crucial for gaining a foothold in the labor market, hence this upward mobility could very well be an illusion. Is elite education and its perceived benefits for social mobility then merely a myth?
Jia and her co-researcher extensively surveyed graduating college students (over a six-year period from 2010 to 2015 in order to collect sufficient data to solve this puzzle. Her main findings reveal that scoring above the elite university cutoff dramatically increases one’s probability of going to an elite university, with elite education being a relatively good predictor of higher wages at one’s first job after graduation. Interestingly, scoring about the cutoff increases one’s income rank (absolute mobility), but does not change the parent-child link (relative mobility). Overall, the research suggests that the wage premium derived from elite education can be attributed largely to signaling (i.e. college reputation) and university-related alumni networks, with no evidence for the role of human capital in explaining wage premium around the cutoff. Ultimately, elite education and family background play additive roles in determining one’s post-graduation socio-economic status, which partly explains why some people might emphasize the importance of the gaokao, wile others focus on family background as a primary indicator of one’s eventual success.
If you’re interested in looking at Jia’s research, you can find the paper here.