Investing in geographic diversity on college campuses

Danielle Allen is a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Her most recent book, co-edited with Rob Reich, is “Education, Justice, and Democracy.”

For decades, colleges and universities have pursued geographic diversity in their student bodies. Web pages proudly trumpet that this year the college has students “from all 50 states and from over 80 countries” (Harvard) or that “ the students come from throughout the United States and the world” (Stanford). Even public universities use these formulations. At the University of Michigan in 2011, students came from “81 of 83 Michigan counties, all 50 states, and 54 countries.”

Nobody bats an eye at geographic diversity. What’s more, it seems to be on sound constitutional footing. Consider Texas’s Top 10 Percent program, which guarantees admission to a public college or university in the state to students who are in the top 10 percent of their graduating high school class. This program is properly understood as a form of geographical diversity, albeit finer-grained than in previous versions. It did not come in for criticism in Fisher v. University of Texas, the anti-affirmative-action lawsuit the Supreme Court is expected to rule on shortly. Michigan’s attention to the number of counties from which it recruits students is a similarly fine-grained geographical approach, also without the controversy that has surrounded its other diversity initiatives.

There are good reasons why no one is bothered by geographic diversity. First, talent is everywhere, and excellence, its magnet. The attraction of students from dispersed geographical origins toward any given campus itself proves that a campus’s offerings merit attention.

But a second reason to be enthusiastic about geographic diversity gets less discussion. Social scientists have long distinguished between “bonding ties,” which connect people who share similar backgrounds, and “bridging ties,” which link people who come from different social spaces. Since the 1970s, scholars have been aware that bridging ties are especially powerful for generating knowledge transmission; more recently, scholars have argued that teams and communities that emphasize bridging ties and learn how to communicate across their differences outperform more homogenous teams and communities in the development and deployment of useful knowledge. Historian Josiah Ober, for instance, makes a powerful case that the decision to organize ancient Athens by routinely bringing together citizens from urban, rural and coastal areas in teams for knowledge-generation and decision making was a major source of that democracy’s strength. Geographic diversity is a sure way of maximizing the role of bridging ties in a campus community.

For this reason, I think it’s time to double-down on geographical diversity in college admissions. We should take it to the level of Zip codes and, in particular, to the level of the Zip+4 system. This Zip code system divides the United States into geographic units as small as a city block or group of apartments. Data management software is now sufficiently powerful that college admissions offices should easily be able to maximize Zip+4 diversity from within a pool of applicants whose credentials exceed that college’s entrance threshold. And given current residential patterns — with their extremely high degree of socioeconomic, racial, ethnic and ideological segregation, well-described in Bill Bishop’s book “The Big Sort” — geographic diversity at the level of Zip+4 address codes will bring other sorts of valuable diversity along with it. This is all within the context of a very old and unproblematic tradition of geographical diversity.

Some will object that such an approach might lead to the well-off moving strategically into neighborhoods with marginally less good provision of schooling, thereby displacing, as the likely beneficiaries of particular Zip code slots, those who are currently at more of a disadvantage in the college sweepstakes.

Indeed, researchers have documented such a phenomenon of strategic choice in Texas since the Top 10 Percent program was introduced. A 2011 paper written for the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed Texas school transitions between eighth and 10th grade and found, “Among the subset of students with both motive and opportunity for strategic high school choice, as many as 25 percent enroll in a different high school to improve the chances of being in the top ten percent. Strategic students tend to choose the neighborhood high school in lieu of more competitive magnet schools.”

But that, I would counter, is not bad news at all. Just as bridging ties are beneficial on college campuses, they are also valuable in schools and neighborhoods. As Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute argued in a recent paper (in a volume I edited), ongoing racial residential segregation is one of the most important causes of low achievement in the public schools that serve disadvantaged children. Other scholars, including Annette Lareau at the University of Pennsylvania, have made similar points about socioeconomic residential segregation. Getting students with more family and social resources back into neighborhood schools should help those schools.

Could a college admissions process structured around Zip+4 diversity incentivize the well-to-do to opt for somewhat less exclusive neighborhoods and so on down the income ladder? If so, we would have begun to reverse the incredibly damaging socioeconomic and ethnic residential segregation that is an incredible drag on this nation’s ability to once again be first in the world in our level of collective educational attainment. What a relief that would be.

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