Migration and human capital accumulation in China

Migration may generate detrimental long-term impacts by widening the urban–rural educational gap

World Bank, USA, and IZA, Germany

World Bank, China

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Elevator pitch

The difference in educational attainment between China's urban- and rural-born populations has widened in recent years, and the relatively low educational attainment of the rural-born is a significant obstacle to raising labor productivity. Rural-to-urban migration does not create incentives to enroll in higher education as the availability of low-skill employment in urban areas makes remaining in school less attractive. In addition, the child-fostering and urban schooling arrangements for children of migrants further inhibit human capital accumulation.

Rural–urban migrant workers (in m.)

Key findings


High returns to middle school education incentivize completion of compulsory education among rural youth.

Remittances from migrants improve health outcomes among children left behind.

If fees charged to migrant children in urban schools are subsidized, parents will bring children to urban areas.

Migrant children who enroll in urban public schools tend to perform better than those in migrant-operated schools.

Reducing the salience of migrant status may improve school performance of migrant children.


Availability of low-skilled wage employment in urban areas creates a disincentive for rural high school enrollment.

Providing information on the returns to education is not sufficient to induce rural children to enroll in high school.

Parent absence slows down the cognitive and socioemotional development of children left behind.

Lack of access to public schools in urban areas means that migrant children are often enrolled in migrant schools with lower quality education.

Maintaining separate migrant schools is unlikely to bridge performance gaps between migrant and local children.

Author's main message

To mitigate the potential long-term negative impacts of migration on human capital accumulation, policymakers should focus on the incentives provided to families with school-age potential migrants and to current migrants who have younger children. As China continues a process of phasing out the residential registration (Hukou) system, it will be important to expand the capacity of public schools to accommodate migrant students and to further work on improving the academic performance of rural-born children in urban areas.

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