How to Break the College Bubble

More students are going to college close to home, but attending institutions in different communities can enhance viewpoint diversity and cultural growth in important ways, writes Samuel J. Abrams.

January 26, 2022
 
 
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Two decades ago, I left the Philadelphia region and headed 3,000 miles west to California to start my first year of college. While I was fortunate to have traveled a bit before college, living in the Bay Area was a huge culture shock. Once I settled into my new home, I quickly had to confront the fact that the institutions, values and practices in the San Francisco Bay Area were appreciably different from the East Coast Jewish community I was used to.

The demographic and cultural differences were at first both jarring and upsetting. Some days I was uncomfortable and felt disconnected and isolated. Yet while I certainly struggled as I learned to navigate this new environment, my life was deeply enriched by seeing and learning from worlds and communities vastly different from those I knew in the mid-Atlantic corridor. I will never forget, for instance, my first Día de los Muertos celebration in San José or my initial visit to Oakland and having my first sip of bubble tea with my newly made college friends.

My prejudices and views were challenged and enhanced not only by what happened on campus but also by the values and cultures present in the local communities, which are inextricably linked to the campuses themselves. Although our nation’s colleges and universities are often considered bubbles, they are concurrently embedded into the socio-geographic and economic environs in which they operate. Thus, college communities have the real ability to influence the views and experiences of the students who live there and can genuinely enhance viewpoint diversity and cultural growth.

Moving across the country was hugely influential for me, but data from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles, shows that over the past two decades, students have become less interested in moving appreciably away from home. While there are various reasons for declining interest in moving, including issues of cost and familial obligations, the data reveal that, in 2019, 42 percent of first-year students attended colleges and universities that were less than 50 miles away from home. A similar number (44 percent) enrolled in institutions that were 100 miles away or farther. Two decades earlier, in 1999, only 33 percent of college students lived within 50 miles of home, while 50 percent of students attended college more than 100 miles away.

In short, over the past 30 years, students have become less likely to move far away from their homes. And while many top colleges and universities boast having students from all 50 states, geographic representation at most institutions has been on the decline. When students were asked in 2019 about the leading reasons they chose to attend a particular school, 25 percent stated that wanting to live near home was a very important reason. In 2009, 20 percent of all students said living close to home was one of the most important factors they considered when choosing their college, while in 1999 just 16 percent said so. Attitudes toward moving away have significantly changed, and students currently are more interested in staying closer to home.

At the same time, students today are also more interested in engaging with their local communities and getting outside of their campus bubbles. For instance, HERI asked incoming students if there was a very good chance that they would participate in volunteer or community service work. In 2019, more than a third (36 percent) of students intended to do this. Interest in community engagement is significantly up over the past 30 years—31 percent of students in 2009 and about a quarter (24 percent) in 1999 reported that they wanted to do community service work. And in 1990, when this question was first asked, the figure was just 17 percent.

Add to this story the fact that students today are more open to diversity than ever. Huge majorities of first-year students pride themselves in their ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective, tolerate others with different beliefs and work cooperatively with diverse groups of people. It is clear that students today are open to a wide range of experiences and want to engage with the communities around them at notably higher levels in the past. But still, they are also less likely to be studying and living in communities that differ from where they grew up.

Thus, one way to increase real viewpoint diversity among Gen Z college students today is to encourage those heading off to college to enroll at colleges and universities farther away from their homes. Imagine if a student from a conservative Texas metro ended up studying in a liberal New England town, or if a student from the liberal mid-Atlantic region ended up in Florida. In their new environments, those students would truly have the chance to engage with ideological and cultural differences. I certainly did by moving to California and am far better for it. In fact, bursting the homogeneous college bubbles that plague higher education may not only significantly benefit our students but also even help, over time, bring the nation together.

Bio

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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