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Supporting data for "The Idea of “Useless Education” in the University Massification Era: Educational Aspiration and Rational Choice in Rural China "

posted on 2023-02-27, 06:07 authored by Chao SuChao Su

Global evidence has consistently documented persistent inequalities after the expansion of higher education (Hutchings & Archer, 2001; Shavit & Blossfeld, 1993). China, with its higher education system reached the “massification” level, is no exception. The expansion has positioned rural students to a more challenging situation in the higher education arena and labor market (Mok & Wu, 2016; Wu & Treiman, 2007). Scholars argue that the third wave of “useless education” (“讀書無用論”) has returned to rural China. Given that most students in the Chinese educational system are from rural districts, this is an increasing social concern with substantial consequences for national stability and legitimacy (Shi et al., 2015). Therefore, rural families’ educational orientation warrants a more updated understanding. However, it has received scant scholarly attention from the stratification literature (Yu, 2020). In this respect, this study explores rural Chinese families’ educational aspiration and their rational choice of higher education.

Following a qualitative-driven mixed method approach, this study targets 96 purposefully selected rural families as the main research subjects for in-depth semi-structured interview. Meanwhile, 1,321 students from a targeted rural middle school filled the survey. This study adopts Rational

Choice Theory (RCT) as the thinking tool to unpack rural Chinese families’ university-going decision mechanism.

In general, there are mainly three propositions formed from the findings. The first and major one is: rural families adopted the overcompensating strategy to react to the structural change of university massification, thus hardly leaving room for the idea of “useless education” (“讀書無用 論”) to exist in the local community. Specifically, they treat a university degree a basic threshold, and aimed for a higher level of educational degree. The second proposition is that: the “usefulness” of higher education is perceived by more of its instrumental value, with its bottom line be free from unstable manual labor work, such as “more money” and “better jobs”. However, when money is at the cost of instability or a nature of manual labor, their quest for high salaries give way to their quest for stability and non-manual work nature. The last proposition is that: most of the rural families’ “anti-school behaviors” are caused by a number of structural reasons, NOT because they believe in the idea of “useless education”.

This study fills research gaps in understanding rural Chinese educational aspiration and their rational choice for higher education faced university massification. By providing an agent-based perspective, it offers perspectives that largely different from the dominant interpretation. It also explains the third wave of “useless education” (“讀書無用論”) by removing assumptions that are taken for granted. Theoretically, it enrichs the RCT by examining a context where purely economic constrains might not be sufficient to explain human agency’s educational decision-making. In practice, with an updated understanding on current rural Chinese educational orientation, it can also shed light on how Chinese government and the higher educational system can provide targeted support for rural families to realize their higher education opportunities.


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