What Does Educational Migration Look Like in Rural China?

Authors: Dr Dan Wang, Associate Professor, The University of Hong Kong
Ms. Yuan Teng, Assistant Professor, Central China Normal University

China is perhaps best known for its recent explosions in economic growth and geopolitical power in recent years. Less known to the outside world is the enduring challenges in China’s rural communities. The past decades have witnessed the brain drain in rural China due to the massive rural labor force moving to urban cities. The growing “educational desire” (Kipnis, 2011) drives up rural family investment in education, leading to educational migration. Some rural parents relocate families to large townships or county seats to enroll their children in higher performing urban schools, abandoning the rural schools in villages or small towns where they originally lived. They either buy or rent apartments close to school to take care of the children. It is estimated that some rural communities have lost one quarter to half of their school-aged children together with their families to urban schools (Wang & Xue, 2012). Education has spurred another round of rural exodus that further erodes the local communities.

Our research project examined the impacts of educational migration on rural economy in one county in Central China. We found that educational migration caused considerable loss of manpower and financial resources, and this exacerbated agricultural shrinkage and deepened rural decline.

Rural Financial Drain

The relocation of rural families to urban towns drained the countryside’s resources. In the 2017-18 academic year, 3686 and 1970 rural educational migrant children were enrolled in the county capital and the township primary schools, respectively. The cost of living in the urban setting was RMB 12,600 per family in townships and RMB 21,300 in the county capital annually on average. The total funds flowing out from rural villages amounted to at least RMB 79.0 million per year, with the lion’s share of RMB 61.7 million going to the county city. This estimate was conservative, as it only included three township schools in the sample, whereas County G had eight township schools altogether. Moreover, 13 out of the 83 interviewed migrant families had already purchased apartments in the county capital, and 21 additional families were planning to do so soon. The average price of an apartment in the county capital in 2018 was RMB 3860/m2, with the total cost of an apartment ranging between RMB 308,800 (for 80m2) and RMB 540,400 (for 140m2). The educational migrants were a strong driver of the urban housing market in County G. This was acknowledged by a local official, who said, ‘Without these rural families, these apartments in the county capital would not be sold out’. Educational migration contributed to the economic growth of the county capital at the cost of financial drain in the rural communities.

Agricultural contraction

The exodus of rural adults has consequently reduced agricultural production. One mother admitted that the tea harvests were not as good as before she came to the county capital because she no longer had time to manage the tea trees. One grandmother remarked that her income from agriculture was reduced by over half – from RMB 9000 to RMB 4000 – because her time spent on farming had decreased.

Most educational migrants seldom returned to farm, thus much of their land was abandoned. More than 25% of the farmland of educational migrant families was left fallow, whereas for non-migrant families the percentage was merely 7.7%. Controlling for other variables, the possibility of land abandonment by educational migrant families was 2.175 times higher than that of non-migrant families. Rural educational migration increased land desertion by as much as 1.489 mu per family. At this rate, a total of 6350.6 mu (423.4 hectare) of farmland were estimated to have been abandoned by 4265 educational migrant families in the sampled schools. This deserted farmland was equivalent to the arable areas of 4 villages! Apart from migrant and local off-farm labor, educational migration was the strongest contributor to land desertion.


The deleterious effect of educational migration on rural development is obvious. The enormous outflow of human and financial capital has increased the strain on the struggling rural economy, thus creating a vicious cycle.


Kipnis, A. (2011). Governing Educational Desire: Culture, Politics, and Schooling in China. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Wang, L. & Xue, M. (2012). Investigation and suggestions about the phenomenon of “Peidu” among rural parents. Scientific & Technical Information of Gansu, (6), 104-106 (In Chinese).

Details of the current study can be found in:

Wang, D & Teng, Y. (2022). Educational Migration and Rural Decline in China. The China Journal, Vol 88: 100-125. https://doi.org/10.1086/719473

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