Why politics matters to me in the college selection process

By Randi Olin

My kids’ high school counselor has a map of the United States tacked to her cinder block wall. Three years ago, at our family meeting to discuss my daughter’s college prospects, the counselor asked us to point to the parts of the country we’d feel most comfortable sending our oldest child to. The idea was to find out how much we overlapped with our daughter in terms of our preferences for her proximity to home. This was one of the main focuses of the conversation, I remember: mileage.

In the coming months, we will be having a similar meeting with my son’s school counselor, yet I realize I will be looking at the poster-size map through a much different lens this time, with an emphasis on politics rather than distance. This is a surprise to me, that my perspective has changed so much in only three years. But then again, I never would have expected our country’s political situation to have become so utterly unrecognizable. 

I wonder if I am alone in these concerns. Does it matter to other families if a university is located in a red or blue state—one that is considered republican- or democrat-leaning? Will this be an additional factor in terms of where we take our high-schoolers on campus tours during the next four years or how we will react when they ask for guidance about prospective school options. For me, I can’t escape the reality that, with Donald Trump as President, the color of a state or county does matter. At least it does for my family.

Coincidentally, the year Tim Russert introduced the idea of red state vs. blue state—during the 2000 election—was the same year my son was born. In the almost 17 years since, color-coding our states has become more and more popularized, appealing to the sensibilities of modern-day TV viewers and political pundits alike. With the most recent election results and the resounding social and economic implications of the Trump administration, red and blue have taken on a new meaning for me. I am left worrying about my son’s future, more specifically about where he will be spending the next four years, and what it might mean for a Jewish boy from a pro-choice, Hillary Clinton supporting family to potentially end up in a red-colored environment.

I wasn’t thinking this way when my daughter was applying to college a few years back. It didn’t seem to be as relevant then, because the political climate was much more stable, and much less scary, and the end of the world as we know it didn’t seem like a real possibility. But also, my daughter’s top-choice school, the University of Michigan, was the same college I had attended, so I was somewhat familiar with the political vibe on campus. Plus, college towns for the most part are liberal-friendly—they are filled with young people and intellectuals—so even in a red or a purple/swing state a campus’ political identity can still tend toward a shade of blue. Likewise even if a state is red, many of its urban centers and counties are blue. 

In Michigan, for example—an historically blue state that voted Republican on November 8th—the University seems to have a strongly liberal-minded moral compass. It was one of the first to swiftly and firmly respond to President Trump’s executive order banning Muslims from entering the country, by taking a clear stance against the policy, releasing a statement adamantly refusing to hand over the immigration status of their students. So too, while some schools welcomed Trump and other Conservative and Republican candidates to speak to their student bodies, schools like Michigan had Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine and President Obama, who spoke to students on behalf of Hillary Clinton. This is the type of college environment I want my children to be a part of, one that supports free speech and inclusivity and is more in line with the ideologies of #Imwithher than #MAGA.  

And yet, how much, if at all, do I have a say in the matter?

I trust that my son is aware of the ramifications of this election, to the extent that a 16-year-old can be. But, as we discuss his college choices, I will be more inclined this time around to offer bits and pieces of information about anti-semitism and the likelihood of different sorts of discrimination in certain spaces. I will be honest with him about my fears, and about how important it is for him to take these issues into consideration in his selection process.  

Three years ago when I stared at the poster in the school counselor’s office, I looked carefully at the Pacific and then at the Atlantic Ocean and deliberated where to make the imaginary line. I have friends who had carefully calibrated mile limits or geographical landmarks past which their kid was not allowed to go. But that afternoon I stepped away from the map with my pointer finger still by my side, and let out an audible, deep sigh. “She can go wherever she wants, no matter how far away.” That wasn’t really the truth, though. I didn’t want my daughter to go so far from home that it would make it difficult to visit. But I didn’t say so that day in the counselor’s office. Because I had decided not to limit my children’s choices when it came to college. And also because with many years of parenting under my belt I knew that if I flat out said no, it might make her want something she hadn’t even considered.

When I picture myself at my son’s meeting in the coming months, I visualize the school counselor’s map as a patchwork of red and blue. But like with my daughter, I won’t be drawing any lines to say what’s off limits, no matter how anxious I might be. The best I can do is talk to him about it all, to help him gain a deeper understanding of the potential impact this administration has on the larger world around him. The rest is up to him. 

Randi Olin is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She lives in the blue state of Connecticut. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Map, 1961, by Jasper Johns

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