Study Attributes Lack of Support for Higher Education by Older Generation to Increase in Ethnic Diversity

Findings from a recent study reveal a link between the increase in the ethnic diversity of college students and waning support for public funding of higher education by older white voters.

The study, titled “Intergenerational Conflict and the Political Economy of Higher Education Funding” and published in the Journal of Urban Economics, used data from attitude surveys and precinct-level votes on higher education funding in California. Its findings have raised concerns for many over whether racial sensitivity by older white Americans could lead to decreased public support for higher education in areas where the university-age population is increasingly racially and ethnically diverse.

While researchers found that older voters were less likely to support taxation to fund higher education overall, they also noted a quarter percentage point drop in support for funding among older white voters with every percentage point increase in the proportion of college-age Hispanics.

The study states that the results “raise obvious questions about the sustainability of political support for higher education funding as the predominantly white baby-boomer generation ages and the divide between the racial and ethnic composition of younger and older generations widens.”

Co-author of the study Erik Johnson, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said he believes these older Americans’ “hostility” toward ethnically diverse college students could not be explained by “rationally motivated” fears over competition for jobs or illegal immigration; rather, he believes their reactions were most likely caused by, what he refers to as, “racial sensitivity.”

However, the study did not reveal the same racial bias among younger white voters, which Johnson attributes to either increased sensitivity to race as one gets older or less sensitivity to race and more acceptance of diversity by younger generations. If the latter is correct, Johnson hopes that “support for higher education funding will recover as the younger white population ages into a comparably less racially sensitive older population.”

Since the recession, California has experienced state cuts in higher education funding of nearly 16 percent per student, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Some states have experienced even greater cuts.