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The case for attending college in a red state

There’s a growing aversion to attending college in politically conservative states. What the Chronicle of Higher Education calls the “red-state disadvantage” in higher education is affecting the decisions of both potential students and staff alike. 

Anecdotally, I can attest that this is real. In my work coaching college applicants, I have noticed an increased likelihood that applicants in states that vote Democratic in elections won’t apply to universities in states that vote Republican.

One reason is certainly the perceived prestige gap between colleges in blue and red states. A majority of the most highly selective colleges are located in blue states, including Ivy League schools, Stanford University, the University of Chicago, and so on. 

Another possible reason is that students may prefer colleges where they believe they will feel more “comfortable,” and moving to a red state can entail more than just being around people with different opinions. 

In the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned, some students may think that going to school in a red state will limit their reproductive freedom. Similarly, queer and trans students may be concerned about their rights in places where laws may offer them fewer protections. 

It’s an understandable concern, and all students should seek and apply to schools where they believe they can thrive and feel secure. Still, I strongly urge students from blue states to think seriously about applying to colleges in red states because it boosts their chances of getting into a good school and enjoying long-term career success — and also increases the odds of something else: helping to combat one of the defining social issues of our time, political polarization.  

First, the red state reputation for less-prestigious colleges isn’t accurate or fair; many colleges and universities in red states offer a terrific education. Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, Indiana University, the University of North Carolina and Duke in North Carolina, and the University of Texas are just a few such outstanding schools. 

Second, it may be easier for a blue-state student to get accepted by a red-state college than by a comparable college in a blue state: As top red-state colleges strive to assemble a geographically diverse incoming class, there may be comparably fewer blue-state students than red-state students vying for each available spot in their respective regions. 

Third, given current economic trends and realities, it’s arguably better in a red state for future job prospects. These states may have more opportunities and a lower cost of living; just ask the American workers who have been moving in large numbers to red states in recent years, many for lifestyle and financial reasons. Graduating college students seek affordability and career opportunities, in that order, in where they’ll start their adult lives. 

Don’t think that students don’t want to live in red states; Texas boasts the highest retention rate for college grads (more than 60 percent in one study) and other red states, such as Florida and Georgia, are not that far behind.

Finally, a blue vote may count more in a red or purple state than in deep-blue population centers such as New York and California. This is an increasingly important factor for many Americans — in a recent poll, 38 percent of respondents considering a residential move said they were interested in a state where their vote would “count” more. 

But it’s not just votes that matter. It’s the very presence of students. 

Political polarization is an endemic aspect of American life. A Pew Research Center study found that 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans believe the opposing party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” The political “echo chamber” has become a staple of discourse critiquing the unbalanced way that Americans experience politics in the media and online. We don’t want to turn colleges and universities into annexes for that echo chamber. 

Allowing higher education to drift toward political and ideological segregation will only exacerbate the crisis of polarization that is already taking a toll on the social fabric of this nation. 

One way to counter this trend is to nurture relationships that stretch across the political divide — and friendships formed in college are often among the most important and lasting in people’s lives. Just as an extensive recent study revealed that friendships with richer peers can greatly increase poor children’s chances of escaping poverty, so can friendships across the political divide increase everyone’s chances of escaping the ideological uniformity and partisan antipathy that, as the Pew study notes, are negatively affecting our politics, our ability to compromise and our everyday lives. 

Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, calls this process of creating ties between divergent groups in society “bridging social capital.” He sees it as a critical tool for holding together an increasingly divided and fragmented society.  

College students who study and learn in an environment that requires them to become conscious of, and to question, their own and each other’s core assumptions, and those who form friendships with the people to whom they “least relate,” may carry forward an approach to life and politics that is less likely to devolve into a destructive “us-and-them” mentality than those schooled in echo chambers. 

College is where many people begin to form and deepen their personal and political convictions. The whole point is to be exposed to new ideas and perspectives. Narrowing the range of ideas and influences in higher education limits the potential for intellectual and moral development — if not the whole process of becoming an adult.

Many students with whom I speak actively express a desire to go to school with people from all kinds of backgrounds, with points of view different from their own. That’s part of why diversity is so important to them as a generation. 

But when it comes to higher education, we should not limit ourselves to seeking diversity on just the grounds of race, gender, or socio-economic backgrounds. We need to reach out across the different sides of the political divide as well. Politically conservative applicants have been braving ideologically liberal, blue-state campuses for years, and both those students and the colleges are arguably the better for it.

We can’t cast blue-state students in the role of ideological missionaries to what some may think are benighted red backwaters. The question of where red-state students are applying and attending is equally relevant, and I recognize that colleges can be fairly liberal environments in red states as well.

Yet, caveats aside, we cannot afford to ignore any promising opportunity to counter polarization.  College students can and should attempt something that our nation as a whole currently seems unable, or afraid, to accomplish: living and learning together. 

Leelila Strogov (@Leelila) is the founder and CEO of AtomicMind, a boutique education technology and college admissions counseling company.

Tags Anti-conservative bias on college campuses Culture Wars Higher education in the United States political divisions Red states and blue states

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