Winners of 2024 Grawemeyer Award in Education discuss race and public university funding

Two people speak at a podium
Grawemeyer in Education 2024 Awardees, Laura Hamilton (left) and Kelly Nielson (right) speak on campus at a public talk on April 10, 2024. UofL photo.

University of California researchers Laura Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen, co-authors of the 2021 book, “Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities,” presented key findings from their work at a public event on April 10. 

Hamilton and Nielson are the 2024 recipients of the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Education which recognizes innovative ideas with the potential to improve educational practices and student achievement.

Their findings argue that decades of public funding cuts have crippled public universities’ ability to serve racially and economically disadvantaged students, with schools enrolling the most marginalized students receiving the fewest resources.

Hamilton and Nielsen pinpoint three major developments in higher education over the past 50 years that contribute to a separate and unequal system: demographic shifts in student enrollment at public universities, significant cuts to public funding for higher education and the decline of race-based affirmative action during this period.

“These issues are deeply interconnected,” Hamilton said.

The book identifies a cyclical pattern of racial resource allocation within universities, driven by the three historical dynamics. The cycle has five elements:

  • The social construct of ‘merit’
  • The racial segregation in higher education
  • The racialized organizational hierarchies
  • Unequal access to private resources and
  • Inadequate student support

“We see a cycle whereby resources are allocated through mechanisms that distribute them along racial lines,” Nielson explained. “The cycle channels educational resources to universities that serve more privileged student populations and starves universities serving primarily racially and economically disadvantaged students.”  

Hamilton and Nielson also emphasized the importance of reminding the public that higher education is a public good, benefiting everyone, not just a private commodity.

“That kind of thinking traps you because you can’t step out of it and think about what it looks like to actually design institutions for social good rather than for people we think have successfully competed in the market to attain those services or goods,” Hamilton said.

The Grawemeyer Award in Education has been presented yearly since 1989. The annual $100,000 prizes also honor seminal ideas in music, world order, psychology and religion.

“Our hope is that the book can be used by universities with limited resources to fight for more support,” Hamilton and Nielsen said. “The Grawemeyer Award is a powerful platform to amplify our message that public universities need public funding. We are thankful for this recognition.”

The $100,000 Grawemeyer prizes also honor seminal ideas in psychologymusic compositionreligion and ideas improving world order. Winners visit Louisville to accept their awards and give free talks on their winning ideas.

View photos from Hamilton and Nielsen’s lecture on UofL’s Flickr albums