Br J Sociol. 2022 Aug 28. doi: 10.1111/1468-4446.12972. Online ahead of print.
The link between university graduation and liberal values is well-established and often taken as evidence that higher education participation causes attitudinal change. Identification of education’s causal influence in shaping individual preferences is notoriously difficult as it necessitates isolating education’s effect from self-selection mechanisms. This study exploits the household structure of the Harmonized British Household Panel Study and Understanding Society data to tighten the bounds of causal inference in this area and ultimately, to provide a more robust estimate of the independent effect of university graduation on political attitudes. Results demonstrate that leveraging sibling fixed-effects to control for family-invariant pre-adult experiences reduces the size of higher education’s effect on cultural attitudes by at least 70%, compared to conventional methods. Significantly, within-sibship models show that obtaining higher education qualifications only has a small direct causal effect on British individuals’ adult attitudes, and that this effect is not always liberalizing. This has important implications for our understanding of the relationship between higher education and political values. Contrary to popular assumptions about education’s liberalizing role, this study demonstrates that the education-political values linkage is largely spurious. It materializes predominately because those experiencing pre-adult environments conducive to the formation of particular values disproportionately enroll at universities.