As a college student, I experience the consequences of our polarized nation every day. I attend a university that is more socioeconomically diverse than many, but 57% of my fellow students have family incomes in the top 20%. More than half the students in my class of 2022 are from the blue states of Massachusetts, New York, California, New Jersey and Connecticut. I’ve yet to meet a publicly pro-Trump student on campus.
It’s hard for me and my fellow students to understand our country’s problems and its sources if we don’t meet people with different views and experiences than our own. If we are to truly overcome our divides and understand each other better, we need to figure out ways to get citizens to move out of their “bubbles” and interact regularly with a wider variety of their fellow citizens.
This is the motivation behind “national service” programs, famously called for by President John F. Kennedy with his Peace Corps proposal. They are now a staple for politicians, including in the 2020 presidential race. Democrat Pete Buttigieg, for example, proposes a "New Call to Service" plan that says national service is "essential to fashioning a common character."
These programs hold promise but would require a large budget and a new bureaucracy.
It's time to explore our own diversity
Fortunately, there is an existing program that has proved enormously successful and could fairly easily be repurposed for this problem: study abroad.
Over the past generation, the number of American college students studying abroad has increased dramatically. Currently, about 16% of those earning bachelor’s degrees spend part of their time in college abroad. Studying abroad is seen as a way for students to expand their worldviews, learn about other cultures and lifestyles, and gain skills like learning a language that are necessary to thrive in our globalized world.
These are, of course, important and worthwhile goals. But so is learning more about our own country, and encouraging study “at home” rather than just study “abroad” could help accomplish that. Programs that allow students to spend time at different universities in the United States do exist, but they’re quite small. Given increasing partisanship and geographic sorting, these programs ought to be scaled up significantly, in order to ensure that students learn about the different types of people and lifestyles that make America so great.
Colleges bill themselves as bastions of diversity, and with regards to race, they’ve improved greatly over the past generation. However, many universities, particularly elite ones, remain socioeconomically, geographically and politically homogeneous. For example, many top universities enroll more students from the top 1% than from the bottom 60% of the income distribution. In a survey of college freshmen, more than a third reported attending college within 50 miles of where they live, and most attend college either in their state or a neighboring one.
Help us learn about each other
Imagine if colleges set up programs to encourage students to spend a semester at a campus very different from theirs. If students from Hillsdale College and Harvard University, or State University of New York at Albany and The University of Alabama, or Brigham Young University and Brandeis University, switched places and spent a semester learning and living together?
When people have one-off encounters with someone different from them, they’re not likely to deeply connect with and empathize with that person. But when they spend significant amounts of time with them, doing a wide variety of activities — sports, social events, volunteering, campus jobs — they’re more likely to relate to and perhaps even befriend them.
Such “study in the U.S.” programs should be the foundation for other campus initiatives to encourage students to have difficult conversations and interactions in safe and civil settings. This would not only inject different ideas but also make colleges places where young people learn the skills needed to become informed and empathetic citizens in a diverse society.
Helping Americans learn more about the world is important, but so is helping Americans learn more about each other. Too many colleges have come to reflect the sorting and polarization plaguing our country. But they could become the place where we start to overcome these trends. The next time a college or university decides to add a new destination for their study abroad programs, they might consider Mississippi or Massachusetts in addition to Madrid. They’ll be doing their students, and our democracy, a favor.
Isaac Rose-Berman is a rising sophomore at Brandeis University and an intern at The Flip Side, a free daily newsletter that seeks to bridge the divide between Democrats and Republicans. Follow him on Twitter: isaacberman42
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Colleges can heal polarized America with study abroad at home programs