One’s level of education can impact their political attitudes and behaviors. What is unclear, though, is what causes these attitude changes and whether it is appropriate to attribute these changes to university, specifically. New research published in Electoral Studies found that achieving a university degree resulted in less racial prejudice, less authoritarianism, and more economically right-wing political values in a British sample.
Study author Ralph Scott used data from the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS) to examine the changes in political values that those who graduate from university undergo in the following adult years.
“From an initial position of scepticism about the existence of underlying, consistent attitudes among much of the voting public, there is now broad acceptance within political science that many individuals hold essentially consistent underlying positions in terms of racial prejudice, left-right economic and liberal-authoritarian social values throughout their adult lives,” noted Scott.
People with higher levels of education tend to display lower levels of racial prejudice (i.e., less hostility toward racial out-groups), lower authoritarianism (i.e., less support for social order over individual liberty), and more economically right-wing values. One of the concerns with existing data on these relationships is the potential for selection effect biases. Specifically, perhaps other important variables such as demographics, family background, and/or cognitive skill account for the differences in political values that previous studies have observed.
Using a statistical model that allows for the observation of effects over time and data from the BCS, the study author examined changes within individuals born in England, Scotland, and Wales in 1970 until the age of 42. Respondents were separated into two categories: those who had earned a university degree or higher qualification (using ISCED-2011 classifications by UNESCO) and those who had not.
“Results indicate that achieving a degree has a moderate and statistically significant negative relationship with this outcome, meaning that graduates become less prejudiced on average, accounting for the effects of selection,” Scott concluded. Similarly, there was a significant reduction in authoritarianism and an increase in economically right-wing values among those achieved a degree. Thus, Scott found support for the causal effects of university on these changes in political attitudes.
Some limitations to this work are mentioned. For example, this study is limited to British data and the specific cohort of those who participated in the study. Thus, it is unclear whether the findings generalize to areas with different education and political systems.
The study, “Does university make you more liberal? Estimating the within-individual effects of higher education on political values“, was published April 26, 2022.