Political scientists have noticed that since the 1970s, Americans have begun to cluster into communities that share similar values and lifestyle preferences. It makes sense; if given the choice, someone will live where they feel most comfortable. But it also has had a side effect where people of the same political persuasions are clustering, creating more partisan politics. Conservatives and liberals aren’t interacting in their communities as much as they used to. The Economist even wrote that it is making “the culture war more bitter and politics harder.”
I’ve noticed that the same phenomenon of clustering has been occurring at the University of Minnesota. Think of all the stereotypes our University has about its dorms — Middlebrook has the nerds, Territorial has the partiers, 17th has the rich suburbanites. Incoming students can choose their roommate and dorm, so they have naturally chosen to live with people that fit their tastes.
This self-selecting effect that our mix of housing options allows creates a college that is a continuation of high school. Classes get harder and parties get bigger, but students continue not to experience things beyond their upbringing. Clustering can create dorms that are islands of homogenous people.
Clustering is particularly egregious at this University because it is a place where people from all corners of the country will live within a short walk of each other for four years. For 18 years, physical geography has kept us separated and in our own worlds, and briefly, at the University we have the opportunity to bridge our physical distance. Clustering wastes the potential that our diversity brings.
As Kevin Kruger, the resident of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, told Inside Higher Ed, pairing students together from varying experiences creates “opportunities for dialogue.” Students encounter perspectives that 18 years of physical geography prevented them from experiencing. Research has even borne this out: white students who lived with black students become more open-minded about race and were three times more likely to interact with black students.
The government can’t do anything directly about the clustering we’ve been experiencing — it can’t, nor should it, force you to live anywhere. But our University isn’t the federal government. It can do something to prevent us from clustering together. It can randomly assign us dorms and roommates, as some schools like Duke University do. It is a way of generating the cross-community contact that we inadvertently avoided when we were back home.