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The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities


The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities

Public research universities were previously able to provide excellent education to white families thanks to healthy government funding. However, that funding has all but dried up in recent decades as historically underrepresented students have gained greater access, and now less prestigious public universities face major economic challenges.

In Broke, Laura T. Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen examine virtually all aspects of campus life to show how the new economic order in public universities, particularly at two campuses in the renowned University of California system, affects students. For most of the twentieth century, they show, less affluent families of color paid with their taxes for wealthy white students to attend universities where their own offspring were not welcome. That changed as a subset of public research universities, some quite old, opted for a “new” approach, making racially and economically marginalized youth the lifeblood of the university. These new universities, however, have been particularly hard hit by austerity. To survive, they’ve had to adapt, finding new ways to secure funding and trim costs—but ultimately it’s their students who pay the price, in decreased services and inadequate infrastructure.

The rise of new universities is a reminder that a world-class education for all is possible. Broke shows us how far we are from that ideal and sets out a path for how we could get there.


"Sobering... Broke enables readers to understand how public institutions contribute to hardening the striations of the national class structure."

Public Books

“In a crowded field of studies on higher education, Broke distinguishes itself by presenting a truly unique, multifaceted, and critical portrait of the 'new university' as a racial project. Hamilton and Nielsen convincingly demonstrate how processes of 'postsecondary racial neoliberalism' concentrate underrepresented students of color in the least resourced public universities. In these institutional settings, diversity policies and practices are shaped not by only colorblind ideology, but austerity as well."

Michael Omi and Howard Winant, coauthors of Racial Formation in the United States

Broke has the makings of a classic for the sociology of higher education, race, and class stratification. Hamilton and Nielsen document the evolution of the 'new university' in race- and class-stratified society during what they coin as the 'postsecondary racial neoliberal' era.  Bolstered by strong empirical analyses and captivating, incisive writing, this book draws the reader in and beckons us to shatter both the realities and ironies of segregated university education as conduits of economic mobility in a wealthy society."

Prudence L. Carter, author of Stubborn Roots: Race, Culture, and Inequality in U.S. and South African Schools

"While their better-off peers enjoy the fruits of massive endowments and high tuitions, the striving students of 'new universities'—less-prestigious research universities serving disproportionately Black and Brown students—get the short end of the stick. A must-read analysis of the self-reinforcing effects of racist austerity logics and their painful human consequences, Broke pulls no punches."

Elizabeth Popp Berman, author of Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine

Broke is theoretically rich, empirically sound, and radically clear-eyed about race and racism. It is high time that sociology and higher education research reckon with the inherent racialization of the institutions upon which we have pinned so many of our hopes for social change.”

Tressie McMillan Cottom, author of Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges

"In Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities, authors Laura T. Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen argue that 'postsecondary radical neoliberalism' is at the root of the decades-long dismantling of public funding for higher education in the United States . . . The nuanced discussion of how neoliberalism yields austerity logics, which yield disinvestment in public universities, which yields creative solutions to funding problems, which yield exploitation of students’ career futures, all wrapped up in tensions and conflicts over campus diversity, makes Broke a compelling read."

American Journal of Sociology

"Broke presents a compelling portrait of the steps public campuses take to 'survive, and even thrive', and of the implications for the students, along with other members of new university campuses, who are stuck managing the fallout."

Social Forces

Table of Contents


The Changing Face of the UC

1. Battle with the Rankings
2. P3 Paradise
3. Running Political Cover

Responses to Underfunding

4. Austerity Administration
5. Tolerable Suboptimization

Dealing in Diversity

6. Student Labor and Centers of Support 
with Veronica Lerma

7. Marketing Diversity

Breaking the Cycle
Methodological Appendix: On Being White and Studying Race


Society for the Study of Social Problems: C. Wright Mills Award

ASA Occupations & Organizations Section: Max Weber Award
Honorable Mention

ASA Section on Sociology of Education: Pierre Bourdieu Award

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