China’s College Expansion and the Timing of the College-to-Work Transition: A Natural Experiment

Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
ANNALS, AAPSS, 688, March 2020 93
DOI: 10.1177/0002716220906791
China’s College
Expansion and
the Timing of
the College-
906791ANN The Annals of the American AcademyTiming of the College-To-Work Transition in China
This article examines the effect of China’s 1999 accel-
eration of higher education expansion on when college
graduates find their first skilled job. We use a natural
experiment to test our hypotheses and exploit the
unique education and work history data of a nationally
representative survey, as well as estimate a causal infer-
ence model. We find that the 1999 education expansion
caused a delay in the landing of a skilled job among
graduates from technical colleges, while graduates
from four-year colleges were not affected in job acqui-
sition. We also find that family origins and individual
social positions are significant determinants of who
entered college both before and after the education
expansion. These findings shed new light on the work-
ings of early adulthood and on social inequality in
Keywords: China; college graduate; higher educa-
tional expansion; skilled employment
The turn of the new millennium witnessed
an accelerated higher education expansion
in China. In 1998, the number of new college
admissions was 1.08 million; that number
reached 6.08 million in 2008, about a six-fold
growth (China Ministry of Education 1999–
2015). Scholars consider a key motivation for
this higher education expansion to be the high
unemployment rates among high school gradu-
ates who were competing for jobs with those
who had been laid off from state-owned enter-
prises in the late 1990s (Knight, Deng, and Li
Lingxin Hao is a professor of sociology at Johns
Hopkins University. Her specialties include social ine-
quality, sociology of education, migration, family and
public policy, and quantitative methodology. Her
research has appeared in the American Journal of
Sociology, Demography, Social Forces, Sociology of
Education, and Child Development, among others.
Dong Zhang is a lecturer in sociology at Chongqing
Technology and Business University in China.
2017). China’s college-educated millennials face a complex array of opportunities
and vulnerabilities after this higher education expansion that reshaped the transi-
tion to work for college graduates in the 2000s compared to those who completed
college in the 1990s. We conceive the macro-factor-driven difference between
two successive cohorts’ experience as a natural experiment of the 1999 college
expansion, an exogenous shock, to China’s young adult population. We evaluate
the causal effect of this college expansion on job acquisition of college graduates.
This study may shed light on our understanding of universal early adulthood in
newly developed countries in Asia and around the world (Yeung and Alipio 2013).
The multifold increase in college enrollment rates in the 2000s offered oppor-
tunities for Chinese youth to accumulate human capital. Simultaneously, the
acceleration of higher education expansion in a short period caused a series of
repercussions. First, demand for skilled labor in the then labor- intensive, export-
oriented economy did not grow at the same speed as the supply of skilled labor.
Second, universities were not ready to serve a massive student body, contributing
to graduates of lower quality. Third, university curricula and training programs
did not prepare college graduates to execute work responsibilities with additional
training. These consequences spurred an increase in unemployment rates among
college graduates (Bai 2006; China Statistics Bureau 1990–2015).
The unemployment problem among college graduates may be viewed within
the context of the time it takes graduates to find an appropriate job. The college
education rate in China’s labor force is low, at 17.4 percent (China Statistics
Bureau 1990–2015). And a sudden increase in labor supply may decrease one’s
success in finding a job. Therefore, rather than asking whether college graduates
are able to find skilled jobs, we ask how long it takes college graduates to find a
skilled job. To answer this question of timing, we exploit the unique education
and work history data of a nationally representative survey (China Labor-Force
Dynamics Survey) to estimate a causal inference model for the effect of the 1999
expansion on the timing of the college-to-work transition.
College Expansion and Macro Conditions for the
College-to-Work Transition
We consider China’s college expansion to be a plausible explanation for the
emerging “early adulthood” in the course of China’s transforming economy.
Furstenberg (2010) identifies factors that cause later transitions to adulthood,
including the expansion of education, consistent with China’s situation in the
early 2000s. China’s 1999 college expansion targeted both four-year universities
NOTE: This study was supported by the Hopkins Population Center under a small grant (PI:
Lingxin Hao; R24 HD042854). The findings and conclusions in this article are those of the
authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the National Institutes of

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