Education and Attitudes — Not So Fast

It’s a very common finding that people with higher levels of formal education are less prejudiced — as captured by their answers in surveys. So common is this assumption that it has almost become an informal benchmark for studies on attitudes to immigrants and other minority groups. If you don’t find an association between levels of formal education and lower prejudice, some will doubt your data or analysis.

There are, however, reasons to doubt that this association is the end of the story. First of all, levels of formal education are not a well specified mechanism. In our IMR article, Marco Pecoraro and I write:

While an association between low levels of education and negative sentiments toward immigrants can be found across countries, the underlying mechanism remains poorly specified.

Most studies use education as a proxy of skills levels, which is a very narrow definition of human capital when we consider the possible competition between citizens and foreigners in the labour market. In our study, we addressed this by using skill levels:

Using these more sophisticated measures of exposure to market competition, we find no evidence that – once values and beliefs are accounted for – workers with low levels of education a priori have more negative attitudes toward foreigners than those with upper secondary education.

A simple reason may be that levels of formal education capture social desirability. An (2014) argues that the relationship between education and attitudes/prejudice is largely driven by social desirability, but others contest this (e.g. Ostapczuk et al. 2009).

There have long been reasons to think more carefully about the relationship between education and prejudice — beyond the lack of a clearly specified mechanism. For instance, Jackman (1978) showed that higher education is associated with being more tolerant on an abstract index, but not on an applied index. Studying support for minority rights in referendums and popular initiatives, Vatter et al. (2014) highlight that the ‘effect’ of education depends on the minority group considered. Similarly, Bansak et al. (2016) show that preferences for certain groups of asylum seekers are same across levels of education. A quite different challenge came from Weil (1985) who showed that the association is weaker or altogether absent in non-liberal countries — if we want to speak of an ‘effect’, it does not appear to be universal. That’s exactly what we have seen in recent years as prejudice and attitudes to minorities are increasingly studied outside Western Europe and North America.

For instance, Bahry (2016) did not find a clear association between levels of formal education and negative attitudes to foreigners in Russia (but Bessudov 2016 did). Diop et al. studied the situation in Qatar and found no association to speak of; Barceló 2016 reports no clear association in Asia. Gordon (2016) reports that higher levels of education mean being less stereotyped in South Africa, but that there is no difference in the opposition to refugees; while Gordon (2015) highlights that xenophobia crosses the class divide in South Africa. Kunovich (2004) finds weaker ‘effects’ of education in Eastern Europe compared to Western Europe, while Dennison & Talò (2017) find no direct ‘effect’ in France — right in Western Europe.

One interpretation of education affecting attitudes to foreigners is the liberalizing effect of education. Most studies use cross-sectional data, so they are in a poor situation to test this. Hello (2002) cast some doubt on this interpretation by showing that the ‘effect’ of education seems to vary across countries. More directly, however, Lancee & Sarrasin (2015) used panel data to follow individuals through education, and they find ‘no effect’ when only modelling within-subject variation: Attitudes change little through education.

So we’ve certainly not seen the end of the story yet.


An, Brian P. 2015. ‘The Role of Social Desirability Bias and Racial/Ethnic Composition on the Relation between Education and Attitude toward Immigration Restrictionism’. The Social Science Journal 52 (4): 459–67. doi:10.1016/j.soscij.2014.09.005.

Bahry, Donna. 2016. ‘Opposition to Immigration, Economic Insecurity and Individual Values: Evidence from Russia’. Europe-Asia Studies 68 (5): 893–916. doi:10.1080/09668136.2016.1178710.

Bansak, Kirk, Jens Hainmueller, and Dominik Hangartner. 2016. ‘How Economic, Humanitarian, and Religious Concerns Shape European Attitudes toward Asylum Seekers’. Science 354 (6309): 217–22. doi:10.1126/science.aag2147.

Barceló, Joan. 2016. ‘Attitudes toward Immigrants and Immigration Policy in Asia and the Pacific: A Quantitative Assessment of Current Theoretical Models beyond Western Countries’. Asian Journal of Political Science 24 (1): 87–123. doi:10.1080/02185377.2015.1136228.

Bessudnov, Alexey. 2016. ‘Ethnic Hierarchy and Public Attitudes towards Immigrants in Russia’. European Sociological Review 32 (5): 567–80. doi:10.1093/esr/jcw002.

Dennison, James, and Teresa Talò. 2017. ‘Explaining Attitudes to Immigration in France’. Working Paper.

Diop, Abdoulaye, Yaojun Li, Majed Mohammmed H. A. Al-Ansari, and Kien T. Le. 2017. ‘Social Capital and Citizens’ Attitudes towards Migrant Workers’. Social Inclusion 5 (1): 66–79. doi:10.17645/si.v5i1.798.

Gordon, Steven Lawrence. 2015. ‘Xenophobia across the Class Divide: South African Attitudes towards Foreigners 2003–2012’. Journal of Contemporary African Studies 33 (4): 494–509. doi:10.1080/02589001.2015.1122870.

———. 2016. ‘Welcoming Refugees in the Rainbow Nation: Contemporary Attitudes towards Refugees in South Africa’. African Geographical Review 35 (1): 1–17. doi:10.1080/19376812.2014.933705.

Hello, Evelyn, Peer Scheepers, and Merove Gijsberts. 2002. ‘Education and Ethnic Prejudice in Europe: Explanations for Cross-National Variances in the Educational Effect on Ethnic Prejudice’. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research 46 (1): 5–24.

Jackman, Mary R. 1978. ‘General and Applied Tolerance: Does Education Increase Commitment to Racial Integration?’ American Journal of Political Science 22 (2): 302–324.

Kunovich, Robert M. 2004. ‘Social Structural Position and Prejudice: An Exploration of Cross-National Differences in Regression Slopes’. Social Science Research 33 (1): 20–44. doi:10.1016/S0049-089X(03)00037-1.

Lancee, Bram, and Oriane Sarrasin. 2015. ‘Educated Preferences or Selection Effects? A Longitudinal Analysis of the Impact of Educational Attainment on Attitudes Towards Immigrants’. European Sociological Review, March, jcv008. doi:10.1093/esr/jcv008.

Ostapczuk, Martin, Jochen Musch, and Morten Moshagen. 2009. ‘A Randomized-Response Investigation of the Education Effect in Attitudes towards Foreigners’. European Journal of Social Psychology 39 (6): 920–931.

Pecoraro, Marco, and Didier Ruedin. 2016. ‘A Foreigner Who Does Not Steal My Job: The Role of Unemployment Risk and Values in Attitudes toward Equal Opportunities’. International Migration Review 50 (3): 628–66. doi:10.1111/imre.12162.

Vatter, Adrian, Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen, and Deniz Danaci. 2014. ‘Who Supports Minority Rights in Popular Votes? Empirical Evidence from Switzerland’. Electoral Studies 36 (December): 1–14. doi:10.1016/j.electstud.2014.06.008.

Weil, Frederick D. 1985. ‘The Variable Effects of Education on Liberal Attitudes: A Comparative- Historical Analysis of Anti-Semitism Using Public Opinion Survey Data’. American Sociological Review 50 (4): 458–74. doi:10.2307/2095433.

Image: CC-by-nc More Good Foundation

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