Matthew Yglesias makes an interesting observation about the attitudes of the young:

It seems to me that when people are discussing this issue they often forget that we young people have a different demographic profile from our elders in a couple of important ways. In particular, young people are better-eduated than are older people, a fact that’s often obscured by the fact that the people in question are young. Relatively few 18-29 year olds, in other words, have college degrees, because a whole lot of 18-29 year olds are still in college. If you look at 23-29, though, you’ll see more degrees than the public at large. Similarly, if you look at an even older slice of the young pie, you’ll see more professional degrees. Ideologically, education cuts both ways (or rather, going to college makes you more conservative, going to a graduate or a professional school turns you liberal again), so it’s hard to know how this plays out.

I haven’t read a lot of the literature on this, since I don’t study sociology, but my sense is that the correlations here are mainly explained by self-selection. That is, the type of people who go on to graduate training, especially in the social sciences, tend to be more liberal than their on-to-the-workforce cohort. I’m not sure that the trend holds for professional school, since lawyers tend somewhat more liberal and physicians somewhat more conservative than their peers.

FILED UNDER: Education
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He's a widower and father of two young daughers. He earned his PhD from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I’ll have to dig for the direct quote. But I think it was Hayek who said something like: More educated or intelligent people (I can’t remember which Hayek was refering to but I think both suffer the same sin) tend to be liberal because they tend to overvalue their own intelligence.


  2. Saam Barrager says:

    This is a Gallup survey. I don’t know how often they do it but they did one about a year ago and the results are now subscription only.

    I seem to recal that graduate degrees were somewhat more liberal, while BA’s were slightly conservative.

    If memory serves, there was a poor corelation between years of education and political inclination. Income tended to be a better indicator but the results were all over the place (no direct correlation between salary and degree of inclination, but rather general categories that showed some consistency.)

    I understand that there is roughly a .5 correlation between education and income, so taking the jumble of factors into consideration and then adding age would give you a strange and inconclusive demographic mapping, seems to me.


  3. melvin toast says:

    Correlation doesn’t imply causation. You can come up with any number of reasons why the two are correlated. I’ll propose the following. People who spend a lot of time thinking and proportionately less time doing tend to be liberal because they don’t live in the practical world. Liberalism is more idealistic in it’s view whereas conservatism is more realistic. When a person owns a small business he has a different view than a student.

    I’m not speaking badly about intellectuals. I just think that’s the nature of the beast. A lot of dumb entertainers are also liberal for the exact same reason IMHO.


  4. Paul says:

    Let’s call a spade a spade….

    A WHOLE bunch of people are just too freaking lazy (er enamored of the academic life) to get a job.

    People who work for small businesses and especially people who are in management of a small business tend to be more conservative because they see the fallout of government policy.

    It is easy for pointy headed intellectuals to be liberal…. They don’t produce anything but words.

    Let them meet a payroll for a few years and ask them where they stand on the issues again.


  5. Dodd says:

    I have a BS in Sociology (as an aside, I am firmly of the opinion that *all* Sociology degrees should be “BS”s) and I tend to agree with your “sense” that the bulk of the variance in ideology attributable to education is a result of self-selection [which is, BTW, what you asserted :-)]. And it *is* almost assuredly a correlation, *not* cause and effect – going to graduate school not more “turns you liberal again” than higher ice cream sales lead to greater numbers of drownings (a correlation that is much higher than education:liberalness).

    It is highly dubious to argue that comparing the political opinions of people with and without graduate degrees tells us anything meaningful about the effect of the additional schooling itself. There’s too much selection bias and no adequate means of assessing the incremental change due to a single unit of education (oh, it can be done in a manner that *looks* like a firm measurement, but the methodology of such measures is suspect) while controlling for the ideological influence of those *providing* the schooling (which would be absolutely essential for meaningfully examining how much effect schooling itself, as opposed to indoctrination, has on political opinion).

    One *could* conceivably track the changes in political opinions that result from additional years of education by doing a longitudinal study but it would be difficult to establish a control (not to mention the bias introduced by the study itself: will people’s opinions change ‘normally’ if they know they’d be examined on them regularly over a period of years?). And you would still need to control for the ideology of professors, &c.

    Mr. Yglesias is a bright fellow so it seems more likely that not that he was merely sloppy in his phrasing, not that he was actually asserting a cause and effect relationship that is, frankly, absurd.


  6. Pauly says:

    You’d have to look at the type of degree too: engineering/science vs. the arts makes a large difference. Going to an engineering school for college there were some liberally-minded people, but the vast majority were more conservative in their opinions.