Abstract: With the rapid expansion of higher education, educational meritocracy has received both applause and skepticism among scholars, citizens, and policy-makers. Focusing on China’s urban-rural gap in college enrollment during the expansion, this study examines the differential effects of academic ability on urban and rural adolescents’ college enrollment. Using data from the China Family Panel Studies, the study obtains results showing that the urban-rural gap in attending academic colleges is largest for adolescents who are at the middle ground of the distribution for academic ability, while the gap in vocational college enrollment is greatest for low-achieving adolescents. Compared to their urban counterparts, the positive effects of academic ability on academic college enrollment are stronger for high-achieving rural adolescents. It has little impact on the likelihood of college enrollment for low-achieving rural adolescents. The findings provide important insights for understanding how structural, cultural, and policy factors perpetuate higher education inequality in China.
Keywords: educational meritocracy, higher education expansion, China, urban-rural gap, academic ability, college enrollment