Obtaining a college degree reduces authoritarianism and racial prejudice and increases right-wing economic attitudes

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Ralph Scott estimates the change in political values ​​that occurs in individuals with a university degree by applying longitudinal modeling techniques to data from the 1970 British Cohort Study. He finds that obtaining a degree reduces authoritarianism and racial prejudice and also increases right-wing economic attitudes.

An individual’s level of education is increasingly predictive of their political attitudes and behaviors. In Britain, data from the British Election Study reveals how brutal this relationship has become. Figure 1 below shows the proportion of each educational category voting Conservative, minus the proportion voting Labour, in the 2015, 2017 and 2019 general elections. In studies such as GCSEs or A-levels, the difference in support between the two sides has grown from near parity to almost 40 percentage points.

Figure 1: Conservative lead by education level, 2015-19.

This polarization of education is not a phenomenon unique to Britain, but rather is present in established democracies, leading to the growth of green-liberal parties and an authoritarian-populist backlash, with some suggesting that higher education represents a new political divide in Western Europe. So why has education become a major predictor of political behavior?

One potential explanation lies in the effect that education has on political values. These are latent scales capturing an individual’s broad political perspectives on economic and social issues, which have been shown to be valid, consistent, and persistent among individuals over time. On average, those with higher levels of education are more right-wing economically and socially liberal and less biased.

Thus, the argument is that widening participation in higher education has reshaped the overall structure of values ​​in Britain, and the electoral shock of Brexit has increased the importance of cultural values ​​for voting choice, accelerating a realignment pattern that had been progressing steadily for some time. Decomposition analysis provides evidence for this, finding that the relationship between education and referendum voting choice was almost entirely mediated by its effect on cultural values.

But is it really true that the university has a causal effect on political values? Couldn’t the difference simply be explained by the fact that more liberal young people enroll in higher education? This is the question I investigate in a recent article, finding that in fact the answer is both.

In the study, I estimate the shift in political values ​​that occurs among university-educated individuals by applying longitudinal modeling techniques to data from the 1970 British Cohort Study. Specifically, I apply models to two-way fixed effects (TWFE) and within-between random effects (REWB), which account for observed and unobserved time-invariant confounding (and thus selection effects), as well as the effects of time itself. same. Moreover, the random effects approach allows the individual-level effect of graduation to vary, which overall provides a robust causal estimate (albeit with observational data).

I examine three political values: authoritarianism, understood as support for social order rather than individual freedom (for example, the death penalty or harsh penalties for criminals); left-right economic values, which reflect views on inequality and the role of the state in the economy; and racial bias, which measures hostility towards external racial groups. I include the latter in view of its growing importance for political behavior in Britain.

I find that graduates become less authoritarian, less racially biased, and more right-wing economically as a result of graduation, as shown in Figure 2. Three estimators are used to provide confidence in the results: estimators TWFE and REWB described above, plus a REWB estimator applied to 75 multiple imputation datasets to account for non-random attrition in the cohort study data.

Here and everywhere, a higher value on the outcome indicates higher levels of racial prejudice and authoritarianism, and more economically right-wing values. As the results were standardized and the treatment is binary, the x-axis can be interpreted as an effect size (measured in standard deviations), while the standard errors used to estimate the 95% confidence intervals. % represented by error bars take into account clustering within individuals.

Figure 2: Estimated therapeutic effects of college attendance on political values ​​(N (TWFE and REWB) = 1520, N (MI REWB) = 15874, M = 75).

Although the overall effect of obtaining a degree on these three values ​​is clear, the different magnitude is perhaps expressed more simply by plotting the trajectories of the estimated values ​​for graduates and non-graduates over time. time, as in Figure 3. This displays the estimated marginal means from the TWFE modeling and shows the strength of the effect on authoritarianism relative to the other two results. It also suggests that the college effect materializes quickly but then remains stable, with political values ​​relatively unchanged throughout life after young adulthood. This reinforces the idea that higher education plays an important role in political socialization and the formation of values.

Figure 3: estimated marginal means of the political values ​​of graduates and non-graduates according to age (N = 1520).

These results provide useful insight into why graduates and non-graduates have begun to behave differently at the polls, suggesting that the partial realignment seen in Britain since the EU referendum may be partly attributable to differences in values ​​linked to differential participation in higher education from one generation to another. Given that participation in higher education continues to grow among those under 30 in Britain, we should expect to see a continued shift in overall long-term value towards more liberal values, potentially generating new political conflicts along the axis of cultural values ​​during this transition.

But this research also leaves at least two important questions unanswered. The first is whether these effects observed among people born in 1970 hold for more recent generations of graduates, in particular because of the changes that have occurred since then in the level of participation and the fee regime.

Second, we are also left with the question of why the university changes values. There are various competing explanations for each set of values ​​in the causal literature on the subject: whether it is the graduate premium leading to higher incomes, and therefore lower support for redistribution; the impact of peer socialization in what remain relatively elite institutions; the liberal influence of faculty and university culture (although the evidence for this is more limited); social diversity through difference and the effect of intergroup contact; or the effects of increased cognitive sophistication. These remain to be explored in more detail in future work: yet, with the growing importance of higher education in politics, such research is needed to better understand its effects.

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Note: The above is based on the author’s published work in Electoral studies.

About the Author

Ralph Scott is a research associate and doctoral candidate in politics at the University of Manchester.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash.

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