Rural-urban gap and career preparation trajectories in a Chinese elite university

Research Highlighted:

Chen, L., & Tian, F. F. (2021). Rural-urban gap and career preparation trajectories in a Chinese elite university. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 1-26.

Given the college expansion in China, increasing numbers of scholars have paid attention to the variations in college experience. A growing number of studies have shown that the urban-rural gap is still pervasive in both entry to and exit from the Chinese higher education system. Rural students were marginalized, felt inferior, and experienced a huge emotional burden trying to fit into the university culture (Tian & Chen, 2018, 2020; Li, 2013, 2015; Liao & Wong, 2019).

Informed by Bourdieu’s two classic concepts––habitus and field, we conceptualized inequality in the college experience as a distinction between habitus fits and misfits. Students with college-educated parents tend to have a habitus that fits with college culture, which gives them a sense of being entitled to participate in both academic and extracurricular activities (Armstrong & Hamilton, 2013; Stuber, 2012) and to seek advice and help from professors and mentors (Jack, 2016). By contrast, less privileged––and for purposes of this study often rural––students may be trapped as habitus misfits in college culture. As a result, they feel confused and inferior, and have less of a sense of belonging (Lehmann, 2007; Li, 2013, 2015; Reay, 2005; Reay et al., 2009).

According to Bourdieu, when individuals encounter an unfamiliar field, their habitus can transform but such transformation can be cirsumscribed by past experience (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977). Yet some recent efforts at hybridizing habitus and reflexivity have stressed a larger role for reflexive deliberation in habitus transformation (Adams, 2006; Elder-Vass, 2007). For young adults, one critical aspect of reflexivity is future expectations. How young adults think about the future and design plans to achieve it is an important part of reflexivity in shaping habitus transformation. Therefore, we theorized career preparation in college as a reconciliation between thinking about future, which is reflexive but at the same time bounded by habitus, and the blueprint of a ‘bright future’ that students seek in college.

In this article, we compare how rural and urban students prepared for their career in 4 years of undergraduate study at a top-ranking public university (WU) in China. This study conducted longitudinal in-depth interviews with 32 students majoring in social sciences from 2014 to 2018.

Elite universities often have a popular career preparation trajectory, which consists of steps to be achieved over 4 years. At WU, such path exists as well. While the path provides a promising blueprint for students from various family backgrounds, students approach it differently. We identify four career preparation trajectories––implementing, following, transforming, and downgrading––in relation to students’ various perceptions and experiences.

The four career preparation trajectories illustrate dynamic experiences among students at WU over 4 years. With their parents’ help, students on the implementing trajectory appraised their capabilities and resources before college so that they implemented their career plans right after matriculation. They continued to strategically solidify their prowess in academic performance and noncognitive skills through various activities on and outside campus. With these cumulative advantages, their career preparation was well ahead of that of their peers. Students on the following trajectory were inspired by the path ideal and tried to develop plans that aligned with the path. However, they seldom contemplated life beyond the path but were more attracted by the immediate results of following the path, which helped them maintain their status as rural/county exceptions. Students on the transforming trajectory critically appraised their resources and realistically chose pragmatic skills to fit their own future expectations. Their understandings of their future careers evolved along with their resources and understandings of the future, from an ideal process to tangible goals that fit their means. Students with less privileged family backgrounds showed creative and diverse reactions to the evolving habitus (Li, 2013; Reay et al., 2009). Although students in the downgrading trajectory realized that the less competitive milestones of the path were less attractive to future employers, they continued to stick to the path because they did not know how to prepare for a future career otherwise due to limited capabilities and resources.

Drawing on Bourdieu’s notion of habitus (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992), the career preparation trajectories of these 32 students fell along a spectrum with habitus fit and misfit at two ends. The implementing trajectory leans toward the habitus-fit end and the downgrading trajectory is, unfortunately, prone to the habitus-misfit end. The following and transforming trajectories show a status swinging between habitus fit and misfit, which we conceptualize as a habitus fluid-fit, as ‘habitus reshaping is an evolving process with continuous adaptation and position-takings’ (Li, 2013, p. 841). For students on these two trajectories, habitus fits may alternate with habitus misfits given their resources, the reflexivity of their career plan, and their experiences with career preparation. As such, these students’ habitus fitting presents versatility and flexibility, echoing their evolving reflexivity and habitus transformation in the elite university.

This study sheds light on the dynamic and yet uncertain habitus transformation and career preparation in the elite universities in China. Career preparation oftentimes is not a prearranged activity for college students, especially for students from underprivileged family backgrounds (Savickas, 2005). During the career preparation process, the usual discussions, distinctively comparing habitus fit and misfit (e.g. Lehmann, 2007; Li, 2013) or habitus transformation and habitus hysteresis (e.g. A. Xie & Reay, 2020) may not be able to capture the dynamic, evolving nature of students’ own reflexivity. As their understanding of career and reflexivity unfold during the process, students are able to be directed with useful information as well as exercise sufficient autonomy to decide their own career path. As such, students’ career preparation trajectories can vary and show habitus fluid-fit. Also, although rural students in this study show similar vulnerabilities in existing studies (e.g. Cheng & Kang, 2019; Li, 2013; Liao, 2016; A. Xie & Reay, 2020), some of them are able to exercise the power of ‘looking ahead’ and of reflexivity in order to generate opportunities and successes (Reay et al., 2009). Therefore, this study sheds light on understanding nuanced career preparation processes in elite universities in China and the nuanced mechanism that shapes inequality in Chinese higher education.


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Armstrong, E. A., & Hamilton, L. T. (2013). Paying for the party: How college maintains inequality. Harvard University Press.

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Authors’ Bio

Dr Lin Chen, Fudan University, China

Dr. Chen (Ph.D., UCLA) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work at Fudan University. She joined the department in June 2014 and was promoted to Associate Professor in December 2017. Her research focuses on: identity, gerontology, community, and qualitative research methods. Her monograph “Evolving Eldercare in Contemporary China: Two Generations, One Decision” was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016. She co-authored and published “Community Eldercare Ecology in China” and “Higher Education and Career Prospects in China”, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2020.

Dr Felicia F. Tian, Fudan University, China

Dr Felicia F. Tian is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Fudan University. Her research focuses on transition to adulthood, marriage and family, social capital, and social network analysis. She co-authored with Dr. Lin Chen in a book “Higher Education and Career Prospects in China”, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2020. She can be contacted via email:

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