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Grawemeyer education winner focuses on the racial inequality of college funding cuts

The logo for the Grawemeyer Awards, showing the portrait of a man.
University of Louisville Grawemeyer Awards
The Grawemeyer Awards recognize the work of leaders in music, political science, psychology, education and religion.

The 2024 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Education winners examined how funding cuts disproportionally affect people of color.

Bill Burton: The 2024 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Education was won by Laura Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen for their book, "Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities." Laura Hamilton is a professor and chair in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. And she joins us to discuss the book and the award. Laura, it's good to speak with you.

Laura Hamilton: Good to be here, Bill. Thanks for having me.

BB: The book focuses on how state funding for higher education is being continually cut at the same time universities are becoming more racially diverse. You focused on your University of California, Merced and Kelly Nielsen's school, [University of California] Riverside, because both schools are majority Latinx as well as majority low-income. What did you find?

LH: So, "Broke" uses the University of California system as a case study for race and resource allocation. The UC system is, however, kind of a best or better case scenario. It's been widely recognized as a mobility machine. The nine undergraduate-serving campuses are all research universities. And the state has a historical commitment to serving racially and economically marginalized students. But even in UC, organizational resources are connected to the race and class composition of the student body. So our focal schools in the book, UC Merced and UC Riverside, proportional to their size, do the lion's share of work with marginalized student populations for the system. Both are majority Latinx [and] majority low-income. But they don't have the same access to resources as other UC schools in the UC systems, primarily through access to private resources. As public education is being defunded in the United States, public universities increasingly rely on revenue from donors, from out-of-state tuition, from corporate partnerships. And this kind of revenue is more readily available to schools that have a wealthier and typically whiter population.

BB: The type of school that you just described is what you give the name "new universities." Is that the future of postsecondary education?

LH: I would say yes. The demographics of the U.S. college-going population have shifted a great deal, since like 1960 to now. At that point in time, it was predominantly white. I think it was around 84% of college-goers were white. Now, we have a situation where it's almost 50% white and 50% student body who belongs to a variety of other racial categories. So there's students from a variety of different backgrounds that reflect the changing population of the United States. And those students are attending college. So yes, our new universities reflect the changes that we're seeing.

BB: What does winning the Grawemeyer mean for you and your work?

LH: Kelly and I are really excited about winning the Grawemeyer. One of the reasons we're excited about it is that it signals a public willingness and interest in engaging with this topic. We are very strong advocates of public higher education, and we're very strong advocates of resources and funding for public higher education, because we believe it's important that today's students who are increasingly students from a wide array of backgrounds should have access to a low-cost or free public education system. So the Grawemeyer award brings a lot of attention to an issue that is very important for a lot of today's youth and today's families.

BB: Laura Hamilton is the coauthor of "Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities" and also the winner of the 2024 Grawemeyer Award in Education, along with her coauthor Kelly Nielsen. Professor Hamilton, thanks so much for your time.

LH: Thank you very much.

This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.

Bill Burton is the Morning Edition host for LPM. Email Bill at bburton@lpm.org.

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