Diversity and Democracy

The Democratic Commitment of Community Colleges

The notion of community colleges as “democracy’s colleges” echoes back to the 1947 Truman Commission Report on Higher Education for Democracy, which argued for the creation of a national system of community colleges. Today, these local institutions play key roles in democratizing higher education and giving more people access to the American dream. With affordability, accessibility, and open-access admission practices, community colleges have higher enrollments of lower-income students, nontraditional students, and students of color than four-year colleges and universities, and they also have high percentages of immigrants and English language learners among their student populations.

However, most community colleges struggle with sustaining a holistic campus life because their students often work, take care of families, and manage other responsibilities outside of their education. Additionally, community colleges’ success is often unfairly measured by a completion model, while in reality, community college students sometimes transfer directly to four-year institutions without completing an associate’s degree. These issues, along with the elitist perception of community colleges as “junior colleges,” tend to make community colleges invisible when compared with four-year public and private colleges and universities. This invisibility is unfortunate because community colleges embody a democratic society, as they provide open access to higher education.

How do we make the invisible more visible? How do we get everyone to take notice of the value of community colleges, to see them as democracy’s colleges, and to see their students as democracy’s students? This article argues that this can be done through civic learning and democratic engagement.

Aligning Civic Engagement with Institutional Priorities

Civic learning and democratic engagement should be institutional priorities, but for the majority of community colleges, they are not (or they are in name only). Yet, because community colleges draw their students primarily from their local communities, these colleges are especially well positioned to develop ways to benefit their communities while deepening the educational experience of their students. As they face budget cuts that began before the COVID-19 pandemic and will likely worsen in the coming months, many community colleges are limiting their priorities only to those that would appear most obvious in their ability to advance institutional success and effectiveness, such as workforce readiness, economic development, completion, pathways, access, equity, inclusion, assessment, and accreditation. Many community colleges do not recognize civic engagement as an effective strategy for achieving these same goals. We must not segregate civic learning and democratic engagement programs, initiatives, and pedagogies—like deliberative dialogues, service learning, community-based learning, electoral engagement, and student organizing and leadership training—from efforts to advance institutional priorities. Preparing students for democracy and preparing them for the workforce, careers, and continued education are mutually reinforcing.

In addition, as the American Association of Community Colleges has asserted, “What happens in a college is only as important as the degree to which students’ lives are educationally challenged and changed. . . . Student success lies not only in academic gains, but also in personal, social, and civic development” (Prentice, Robinson, and Patton 2012, 26). If we do not integrate civic learning and democratic engagement with efforts to advance institutional priorities, we will never realize our commitment to the public purposes of higher education.

So how do we ensure that community college students graduate as civically engaged, informed, active agents of change? How do we make civic learning and democratic engagement a priority in community colleges for the future of our democracy? How do we show that civic learning and democratic engagement strategies can be leveraged in powerful ways to advance priorities related to institutional effectiveness, college completion, and student success?

Community college leaders should make the connections between civic learning and democratic engagement and these institutional priorities apparent and measurable. Naming and framing the work already being accomplished at community colleges as civic learning and democratic engagement is essential to advancing this work and making it a priority. For example, many community colleges have food pantries on campus. These food pantries not only ensure that hunger is not a barrier to student success but also feed students’ families in the immediate community. These food pantries support institutional priorities like enrollment, retention, and completion, but they are also a form of civic engagement.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must continue to advance civic learning and democratic engagement. As educators are adapting their courses to online formats, now is a great opportunity to plug civic learning and democratic engagement into their syllabi. For example, the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) is working with campuses throughout the country to convene online nonpartisan discussions of important public issues in this election year. In partnership with the Kettering Foundation and a network of higher education associations, NIFI is preparing complementary materials to support online and in-person deliberative discussions during Constitution Week in September. To learn more, visit www.nifi.org.

Community Colleges for Democracy

In 2018, the Democracy Commitment (TDC), a project focused on preparing community college students for democratic participation that had been housed at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, was integrated into Campus Compact, a national coalition of colleges and universities committed to the public purposes of higher education and building democracy through civic education and community development. What had been TDC was transformed into a new network of Campus Compact’s 240 community college members, Community Colleges for Democracy (CC4D). This network signaled the deepening of Campus Compact’s ongoing national commitment to community colleges, civic engagement, and democracy. CC4D continues the national movement of community colleges committed to preparing students to be informed, active, mobilized leaders in their communities, states, and the world, in addition to preparing them for the workforce, careers, and continued education.

CC4D offers communities of practice for community college civic and community engagement professionals, where they can share questions, challenges, and approaches they found to be effective in linking community-based civic learning to broader goals for retention, completion, and education for democratic participation. In addition to providing training and resources for faculty, staff, and administrators working to maximize community and campus assets to achieve shared goals, CC4D offers a wide variety of professional development opportunities through state, regional, and national conferences and events. Campus Compact will become the national megaphone to increase awareness about the public purposes of community colleges and raise the profile of community colleges as central to the role of higher education in building democracy. To learn more about the civic work of one CC4D network member, click here.

Because community colleges enroll nearly half of all students and play a disproportionate role in educating students from communities that face exclusion, as well as first-generation students from all backgrounds, they are central to Campus Compact’s mission of ensuring that higher education is contributing to the health and strength of our democracy. As Campus Compact engages higher education in the effort to achieve full participation in our communities, democracy, and economy, community colleges must and will stand front and center.


Community colleges are communities’ colleges because of their many close ties to their communities. Both in principle and in practice, they are positioned to become civic leaders at home and globally (Zlotkowski et al. 2004). As community colleges work to help students achieve their academic goals, “our most important civic engagement work is to help our students learn to imagine not just a better future for themselves but a more just and equitable world in which they desire, and are prepared, to be engaged citizens” (Schnee, Better, and Cummings 2016, 6). Community colleges strive to empower their students and to remove political, economic, and social barriers that inhibit full participation in our democracy for our students and the communities in which they live and with which our campuses serve. The road to greater justice and equity runs through community colleges.


Prentice, Mary, Gail Robinson, and Madeline Patton. 2012. Cultivating Community Beyond the Classroom. Washington, DC: American Association of Community Colleges. https://www.mesacc.edu/sites/default/files/pages/section/students/service-learning/CultivatingCommunities_

Schnee, Emily, Alison Better, and Martha Clark Cummings, eds. 2016. Civic Engagement Pedagogy in the Community College: Theory and Practice. New York, NY: Springer International Publishing.

Zlotkowski, Edward, Donna K. Duffy, Robert Franco, Sherril B. Gelmon, Katrina H. Norvell, Jennifer Meeropol, and Steven G. Jones, eds. 2004. The Community’s College: Indicators of Engagement at Two-Year Institutions. Providence, RI: Campus Compact.

Verdis L. Robinson is a Civic Specialist, Associate of the Kettering Foundation, and Former Director of Community College Engagement at Campus Compact.

Previous Issues