Building new national academies will help unify the country and restore the promise of the American Dream

It is too soon to draw full and conclusive lessons from the 2020 election, but two things are beyond dispute: Joe Biden has been elected the next President of the United States, and America remains deeply polarized.

Even as the counting and certifying of votes grinds onward — unhurried by television networks and a pundit class seeking both clarity and absolution — and President-elect Biden’s margin of victory surpasses a best-in-a-generation showing, the ultimate tally will still reveal two halves of America that each hold divergent views of the other.

The currents that bore us here are myriad. The dark legacy of slavery and its offspring systematic racism, differing levels of economic prosperity and opportunity by race, gender, and region, and factional media and social technology platforms are all tributaries of this churning torrent wearing a chasm through the polity.

No matter the causes, we are left to confront this widening gyre of division — and we must pursue solutions, beginning with an expansion of education after high school.

This is not to make the usual economics case that says two-thirds of U.S. residents ages 25 to 64 will need college degrees, certificates, or industry-recognized certifications within the decade — though that is true. Nor is this a case that education alone can fight upstream against the flow of algorithmically driven information and opinion that increasingly sequesters and isolates like-minded communities — though that is also true. Rather, this is a case for expansion of education after high school in the most foundational sense of that word. The geographic sense. The directional sense.

This is the case for literally creating new universities where they are needed most, where education deserts and lack of investment in talent and opportunity are most acute. Why not use the power of the federal purse to bring a tremendous new quantity of postsecondary education to the frontier states? Why not treat an endeavor of this nature like the infrastructure project that it truly is?

Why not the University of the Republic?

Build big, build bold

Imagine new federally charted civilian academies — each 50,000 students strong — in low-population density states such as the Dakotas, Montana, New Mexico, or Wyoming. Tuition would be free, with spots awarded by lottery. Each of our 50 states — as well as Puerto Rico, D.C., and the collective territories — would get an equal number of student slots, and those slots could be traded in a capacity marketplace depending on each state’s level of interest and demand.

All students attending these new universities would complete their first year online, while performing national service in locations throughout the United States. Their second year would be on campus, culminating in an associate degree. Students interested in earning bachelor’s degrees would enroll for in-person third-year classes, while the fourth year would be either in person or at an on-the-job program.

Upon graduation, students would be eligible for subsidized federal home loans if they use those loans in the states where they attended school. This creates a powerful incentive for states to embrace this initiative –guaranteed population and tax base growth over time, plus an attractive way to draw and retain employers. For students, it’s an opportunity to immediately start building wealth and a compelling reason to stay and grow these communities.

These colleges and universities would pay faculty on the federal employee scale, and every faculty member and administrator hired would have any remaining student debt forgiven. Each institution could establish a medical school and hospital on campus, with free tuition in exchange for a term of rural health service in that state.

Beyond education to job creation

By now, it should be clear that this vision is also about infrastructure and job creation. A huge number of construction jobs would be created, followed by service economy jobs. Where possible these building projects should be managed directly by the federal government, with workers hired on as federal employees — and make these workers eligible for the same federal home loan benefits described above.

What’s more, these places can become proving grounds for the types of 21st century jobs that we so desperately need. Renewable energy facilities could be built to power these academies, training students in their construction and operation along the way. New national labs could be established, focused on the pressing scientific needs of the moment like confronting climate change and global health resiliency.

Of course, this idea should be pursued along with — not instead of — all other existing federal investments in education and training after high school. While a handful of new free federal civilian academies will not alone address the crisis of college affordability, a highly desirable free option developed by the federal government will likely introduce market competition that could apply pricing pressure on other public and private institutions.

A fresh start

If you’ve read this far, I would imagine you have an eyebrow or two raised at how audacious and complex this idea is. And it is surely both. But the heart of this idea is a simple one: we cannot reduce our polarization unless we work and live with other Americans who are not like us and commit to solving our problems together. That will never happen as long as the cost of doing so is out of reach for all but the tiniest fraction of our society.

It is not audacious to suggest that we should use the immense treasure of this nation to give a first start — or a fresh start — to all who seek one. It is not audacious to point out that our land is a vast one, and in that vastness is struggle, but plenty of promise, too.

It is not audacious to say that we can build new places, and in so doing build new lives — lives that see not an opponent in the face of others but rather a shared striving toward union. With fresh opportunities and shared common objectives of responsible government and education for all, we can begin to heal a fractured nation.

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