Does College Promote Diversity?

Why piercing the ideological bubble doesn't work.

Posted Jun 19, 2020

Conventional wisdom as well as rhetoric from the political spectrum tells us that the diversity of views and opinions to which college students are exposed enlarges their world view and changes how they interact with other people. For one, it offers a variety of models and possibilities to aid them in the young adult task of finding and consolidating a stable, coherent sense of self. Psychosocial theorists have described this as the search for identity, in which young people discover what their beliefs and values are by testing them against personal experience, rather than unquestioningly accepting those of their parents.

Recent data questions widely held assumptions that college experience builds students’ capacity for interacting with those who hold different ideals, values and attitudes about society. A study published in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education investigated recent graduates’ experiences in what the authors called “ideological bubbles” and found few meaningful, effective efforts that prepared them for the ideological divides they faced after graduation.

A four year longitudinal study at a large public Midwest university followed 19 students who had been extensively involved in community- and campus-based programs before and after graduation. While like most of their colleagues, particularly those working in nonprofits, they recognized the privileges conferred by their academic and socioeconomic status as well as their race, they reported feelings of uneasiness, internal strife, and guilt, occasioned by the incongruence between maintaining homogenous ideological networks with people like themselves while proclaiming the value in which they held civic engagement.

Participants dealt with their insecurity, guilt and strife about staying in their ideological bubbles even after they left college; they cited social media as the primary venue that exposed them to diverse ideological views, although only one person reported that it provided meaningful engagement.

Consuming media from a different ideological perspective caused significant discord, and the half of them who held sustained conversation with those holding different beliefs identified only one or two people with whom they had such discussions. The other half could not identify anyone with whom they disagreed ideologically while also maintaining regular conversation.

Those who worked in nonprofits found that work reified their ideological bubbles. Those who didn’t said their jobs were the primary source of bubble-breaking and found it difficult to navigate an environment where they met “perpetual ideological misalignment.”

Few were able to articulate how or whether college prepared them to puncture the bubble, and those who could—who grew in their capacity to engage across ideological differences—put it down to pre-college experiences or to a single influential program or experience at college that helped them strengthen this attribute—namely their major or a cohort-based program. But all participants found that college did little to foster ideological diversity.

The authors suggested some interventions to promote learning between people who hold differing views, including intentional efforts to reduce intergroup activity, physical spaces in which people can engage across their differences, and models such as public deliberation and intergroup dialogue. It will be interesting to see whether the extraordinary diversity—of color, gender, age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status—expressed in recent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations is more effective in piercing the bubble when campus life returns, particularly in the heat of a political campaign.

References

, Matthew Johnson & Jennifer Peacock (2019) "Breaking the Bubble: Recent graduates' experiences with ideological diversity. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education