Ralph Scott estimates the change in political values that occurs in individuals who graduate from university 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 the GCSEs or the A-levels, the difference in support between the two parties has increased from near parity to almost 40 percentage points.
Figure 1: Conservative lead by education level, 2015-19.
This educational polarization is not unique to Britain but is rather present in established democraciesdriving the growth of green-liberal parties and an authoritarian-populist reaction, 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 be valid, consistent, and persistent across 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 the widening of participation in higher education has reshaped the overall structure of values in Britain, and the electoral shock of Brexit heightened the importance of cultural values in determining the vote, accelerating a pattern of realignment that had been progressing steadily for some time. Decomposition analysis provides evidence for this, finding that the relationship between education and referendum vote choice was almost entirely mediated through its effect on cultural values.
But is it really true that the university has a causal effect on political values? Couldn’t the difference be explained simply by more liberal young people selection in higher education? This is the question that I study in a recent postfinding that in fact the answer is both.
In the study, I estimate the change 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 fixed effects two-way (TWFE) and in-between random effects (REWB), which take into account observed and unobserved time-invariant confounders (and thus selection effects), as well as the effects of time itself. Additionally, 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 prejudice, 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 effect size (measured in standard deviations), while standard errors used to estimate 95% confidence intervals % represented by error bars take into account clustering within individuals.
Figure 2: Estimated treatment 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. Considering the rate of participation in higher education keep growing 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 further political conflict along the cultural values axis over the course of of 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 bonus leading to higher earningsand so decline in support for redistribution; the impact of peer socialization in what remains relatively elite institutions; the liberal influence of the faculty and university culture (although the evidence is more limited); social diversity through difference and intergroup contact effect; 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.
Note: the above is based on the author published work in Electoral studies.
Ralph Scott is a research associate and doctoral candidate in politics at the University of Manchester.