Fall 2024 - 60070 - PA 682PGA - Policy Research Project


PRP Course Description: Bridging Divides in Texas

Instructor: Becca North, PhD


This innovative research project, at the intersection of psychology and public policy, cuts across academic disciplines in its scope and approach to address an urgent problem cutting across all aspects of our lives, and threatening our democracy: the painfully divided state of our country.

This project aims, at a broad level, to foster healing in the country by cultivating communication across divides, starting where we live—in Texas. In recent months, many leaders and writers have referred to the need to tend to the soul of the nation, referencing the deep divides, wounds, and antagonism that are ripping the fabric of the country. According to many metrics, one of the sharpest divides is between people with and without a Bachelor’s degree. This project, more specifically, aims to elevate voices of people who often are overlooked and unheard: people without a Bachelor’s degree. They represent 2/3 of the adult population, but their voices are not represented in national dialogue. They are underrepresented in polls and academic research. Further, data that do exist on their views, lived experiences, and feelings often lack depth and substance. And on the whole, people in this large segment of the population are not flourishing. They are struggling, and suffering.

This project will investigate the question: What is on the hearts and minds of people in Texas without a college degree? The voices of people without a college degree are worthy of listening to, and for our country to heal, they need to be heard. This project aims to elevate their voices in the national conversation—fostering communication, understanding, empathy, and healing across divides.

The research plan is to conduct in-depth, semi-structured interviews with individuals from towns and cities across Texas where an extremely low percentage of the adult population has a Bachelor’s degree. We will hear what is on their hearts and minds, including what they hope for and fear, what frustrates them and weighs on them, and what they value and want most deeply. We will sample from the 137 towns and cities in Texas where 5% or less of the adult population has a Bachelor’s degree. To represent all areas of the state, we will divide these places by region (e.g., North, Central, South) and then randomly select a subset from each region. After conducting interviews, we will transcribe them and conduct linguistic analysis on transcripts—using qualitative and quantitative text analysis—to gain insight into what is on people’s hearts and minds. The PRP will be a pilot project involving towns/cities in one region of Texas (or more than one region depending on funding).

The project outputs will be the scientific findings from linguistic analysis showing overall patterns and the personal stories revealing individual truths. The plan is to communicate findings in a range of ways to maximize impact and outreach of the findings: 1) an academic research article, 2) a long-form magazine article in a publication with broad reach (ultimately, possibly a book), and 3) policy memos to and meetings with political leaders at various levels connected with the Texas towns and cities in the sample. The course will focus on collecting data, analyzing data, writing-up findings, drafting a literature review, and contacting relevant elected officials and communicating with them about our work through meetings and memos.

Though there are many places across the U.S. that would be excellent candidates for this project, and that ultimately we would love to include in a subsequent project, we will start in Texas. Of the forty U.S. counties with the lowest percentage of people with a Bachelor’s degree, five are here in Texas. When these counties are ranked from lowest to highest, three Texas counties are in the “top ten” (i.e., they have the lowest percentage of people with a college degree). There is an opportunity here to jumpstart healing in the country by listening more deeply to the voices of Texans.

Instruction Mode