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Intergenerational conflict and the political economy of higher education funding

December 2015

Eric J. Brunner, Erik B. Johnson


This article looks at how a population’s age distribution and growing divide between the ethnic composition of older and younger generations is likely to affect support for higher education funding. The authors use survey data on voter preferences for higher education funding and precinct-level vote returns from locally funded community college bond referenda in California. They find that older voters are significantly less supportive of higher education funding than young voters and that support among older non-Hispanic white voters is particularly weak when those voters reside in a jurisdiction where the college-age population is more heavily Hispanic.

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Policy Implications

This article may be useful in exploring further policy implications in higher education funding and racial/generational differences in support. Higher education constitutes the third largest expenditure category of state governments, which raises 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. The changing ethnic composition in colleges across the country raises questions to overall support for higher education funding if older white voters become less likely to support funding when the college-age population becomes more diverse. Additionally, the authors’ research suggests that during times of economic hardship, areas with older white residents and higher populations of college-aged Hispanics saw decreased support for higher education funding.

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