Abstract: A college degree has been widely believed to equalize the influence of unequal family background on status attainment. This study attempts to shed light on its necessary institutional contexts regarding meritocracy in college admission and employment. We examine whether and how parental and individual attainment of higher education jointly influence labor market outcomes related to individual’s first job, and compare cohorts in Post-Revolution China, some of whom entered college through political recommendation while others did so through objective examination, and some of whom attained their first job through state assignment while others did so through market matching. We find that, despite changes in admission meritocracy, a college degree equalizes outcomes between first- and second-generation college graduates only for recent cohorts entering a relatively developed labor market. While the findings point to the ability of individual achievement to top family background through higher education, the observed cohort differences are shaped by the unusual circumstances of Chinese social transitions and economic reforms.