College Socialization and the Economic Views of Affluent Americans

The article “College Socialization and the Economic Views of Affluent Americans” by Tali Mendelberg, Katherine McCabe, and Adam Thal, summarized by the authors here, is currently available for Early View prior to publication in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

AJPS_AuthorSummary_EarlyViewAffluent Americans support more conservative economic policies than the non-affluent, and these views matter, because they influence public policy disproportionately. Yet little is known about the emergence of these consequential views. Our research suggests that the affluent’s support for economic conservative policies is partly socially learned. In this study, we develop, test and find support for a theory of class cultural norms: affluent individuals emerge with more conservative preferences when they are immersed in social environments that activate affluent interests. Affluent conservative preferences are partly traceable to socialization that occurs on predominately affluent college campuses.

Previous research on college characteristics has not attended to the effects of concentrated affluence on campus or economically conservative social norms. Consequently, it concluded that college liberalizes. We find that college can also conservatize.

In the current era of high income inequality, college attendance is heavily conditional on high parental income, leading many campuses to be populated mostly by affluent students. We argue that affluent campuses produce an affluent class culture. When this culture combines with a cohort norm of financial gain, it socializes affluent students to conceive of their class interests in a way that favors pro-wealth views. Some of the effect is due to more economically conservative cohort norms. Non-affluent students are not affected by gain-oriented campus affluence, though they are as affected as affluent students by cohort economic conservatism.

Our study advances these questions with some methodological innovation. We use a large two-wave panel dataset with freshman- and senior-year re-interviews of 29,113 affluent college students from 359 schools. Conditional on the student’s view in freshman year, affluent students attending affluent campuses emerge from college with views that are significantly more conservative than affluent students at non-affluent campuses. This effect is particularly strong on campuses where most students indicate they are attending college for financial gain, and among the students who are most embedded in the social environment—who are most likely to absorb the social norms. The collective economic opinion of the student’s cohort also affects individual preferences. The results hold using multiple strategies to achieve better causal inference. Along with controlling on faculty views, curriculum, and other confounds, these include matching, a natural experiment, and examining students who applied to but were rejected by affluent or non-affluent schools, which eliminates selection into school affluence.

These findings reveal larger political and social consequences of rising income inequality. Inequality in access to colleges and universities begets student bodies lacking economic diversity, creating a concentration of affluent students and affluent norms on campus. These norms, in turn, activate affluent students’ conservative class interests and shape their economic views. More generally, these findings imply an important role for institutionalized social forces in political socialization. The consequential views that affect policy are partly shaped by the social environments that adults inhabit in the impressionable years of young adulthood.


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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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