The Household Registration System and Educational Attainment in China: A Causal Analysis
Xiaogang Wu

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Primary Discipline

Scholars often link rural-urban educational inequality in China to the country’s unique household registration (hukou) system, based on which all citizens are designated as either rural or urban and entitled to different life chances. However, as hukou status is closely tied to residential place and family background, it is unclear to what extent the observed rural-urban educational gap can be attributed to hukou status per se, rather than to unobserved community and family heterogeneity. Moreover, since some children from rural backgrounds have been able to obtain urban status and have moved into cities after earning higher education degrees, the estimated rural-urban educational gap based on current registration status may be biased. This project adopts a new counterfactual framework and treats hukou as a specific government policy intervention in China. To assess the causal impact (treatment effect) of hukou status on educational outcomes, propensity-score matching methods are employed to analyze two sets of national survey data. Findings from the project will not only contribute to our understanding of the role of the socialist state in creating social inequality and social exclusion in China, but also have important implications for national policies on education, migration, and regional development.The study is situated in the literature on sociology of education, social stratification under state socialism, and causal inference with observational data. The specific objectives of this project are: To examine the rural-urban educational gap in China via conventional regression models;To estimate the causal effect of hukou status on educational opportunities, including residential locations and family backgrounds, via propensity-score matching methods; To investigate the change in the causal impact of hukou status on educational attainment by analyzing two sets of national representative survey data collected in 1996 and 2003.The study will make potentially important contributions to the following fields: 1. Empirical understanding on how family background interacts with residential locations and government policies in affecting individuals’ educational opportunities, which will fill an important gap in cross-national comparative research on educational attainment. 2. Theoretical re-examination of the role of the socialist state in generating educational inequalities, as the hukou system is explicitly designed by state policies to exclude the rural majority from access to socialist benefits and life chances; 3. Policy suggestions on reform of the hukou system to address rural-urban disparities in socioeconomic development in contemporary China.
About Xiaogang Wu

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