‘Generational schism’ on race lines could cut public support for higher education

Older white voters more hostile to state university funding if younger population is ethnically diverse, Californian study finds

January 5, 2016
Elderly man and women sitting on bench
Source: Alamy

“Racial sensitivity” among older white voters could cut public support for higher education spending in places where the university-age population is increasingly ethnically diverse, a California study has suggested, raising questions about the future of public university funding in North America and Europe.

Using data from attitude surveys and precinct-level votes on higher education funding in California, researchers found that older voters in general were less likely to support taxation to fund higher education, with those over 55 nine percentage points less likely to do so than those under 45.

The results “raise obvious questions about the sustainability of political support for higher education funding as the predominantly white baby-boom generation ages and the divide between the racial and ethnic composition of younger and older generations widens”, concludes the paper, titled “Intergenerational conflict and the political economy of higher education funding”, published in the Journal of Urban Economics.

A one percentage point rise in the proportion of Hispanics of college age was accompanied by a quarter percentage point drop in support for funding among older white voters, the study discovered.

According to the paper, older whites’ “hostility” could not be explained by “rationally motivated” fears over competition for jobs or illegal immigration, and was instead most likely caused by what co-author Erik Johnson, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Richmond in Virginia, called “racial sensitivity”.

However, younger white voters did not show the same racial bias, the research found.

There were two possible explanations for this generational difference, Professor Johnson told Times Higher Education: either that “as you get older you become more sensitive to race” or that “younger white voters are growing up in a more diverse environment and thus less racially sensitive (and see young Hispanics as belonging to their ‘group’)”.

If the latter explanation is correct, he said, “support for higher education funding will recover as the younger white population ages into a comparably less racially sensitive older population”.

Many countries in Europe are experiencing similar demographic shifts as California, with ageing populations whose university-age cohort is significantly more ethnically diverse.

In the UK, migration and varying fertility rates mean that those from ethnic minorities are on the whole younger than the white population. In countries such as Canada, Germany, Norway and Denmark, the ethnic minority population is also predicted to rise significantly over the course of this century.

No study has yet tested whether older, white European voters’ attitudes to higher education funding are similar to those of their Californian counterparts, Professor Johnson said, but there is a “well established” connection between increased ethnic diversity and the erosion of support for public spending on both sides of the Atlantic (although some studies have found otherwise).

Since the recession, per-student state funding in California has been cut by nearly 16 per cent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and even greater cuts have been implemented in most states.

The reduction in Californian funding could be explained in part by the state’s “generational schism”, Professor Johnson said, as the reluctance of older voters to fund higher education has been “exacerbated by the ethnic divide between the older and younger population”. 


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Print headline: ‘Generational schism’ seen in support for state funding of universities

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