Photo of students sitting on grass in discussion at Community College of Aurora
Magazine Advice

Anchors of Democracy

Three lessons for how community colleges can strengthen students, families, communities, and society

By Robert L. Pura and Tara L. Parker

Winter 2022

When you enter the Great Hall of the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, large arched windows surround you. Out the windows on one side is the Statue of Liberty, the most majestic symbol of democracy in the world. Out the windows on the other side is the skyline of New York City, a gateway to a nation and its opportunities. A vessel is needed to access the opportunity and democracy these symbols represent, and such is the role and responsibility of education. To paraphrase poet Emily Dickinson, there truly is no frigate like education.

For many students who enter higher education, community colleges hold high the beacon of opportunity and dreams of a democratic society. In students’ journeys to opportunity, lives change for the better, and families and communities grow stronger. Students, and subsequently graduates, are better informed citizens with the skills and knowledge they need for social and economic mobility and for active participation in a diverse democracy. The potential for our democracy thus grows stronger.

Yet the promises of the nation’s creed of democracy have never been realized for millions of Americans of African, Asian, Latin American, and/or Indigenous descent, populations that have historically been disenfranchised by state and federal governments. These are the same populations that historically made up more than half of community college students, according to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). Our nation’s community colleges, then, must continue to provide hope and a pathway for millions of students, their families, and their communities to realize their dreams.

Without strong communities, a nation is built on a house of cards. Community colleges must remain key stakeholders in strengthening communities. With diverse student populations, affordable tuition, and open admissions policies, community colleges play an important role in democratizing higher education. Community colleges represent education at its best: not hidden behind an ivy wall separate from the realities of everyday life but integrated as a fiber in the tapestry of community.

The collective work of the faculty and staff of the nation’s more than one thousand community colleges seeks to prepare students not only to enter the workforce and transfer to four-year institutions but also to become active, engaged citizens. The connections between a college education and good jobs at family-sustaining wages, social and economic mobility, an educated workforce and citizenry, sustainable communities, and a strong democracy are increasingly clear. Leaders of community colleges must be committed to each of those ends.

Community colleges turn on a dime to meet community needs and often do so without having the dime.

In our forthcoming book, The Community’s College: The Pursuit of Democracy, Economic Development, and Success, we present stories from five community college leaders around the nation. We visited them on their different campuses: Connors State College in Warner, Oklahoma; Hostos Community College in the South Bronx in New York; Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan; Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona; and Berkeley City College in California.

The leaders, faculty, staff, and students at these colleges are doing the impossible as community colleges lag behind doctoral institutions in state funding by nearly $2,900 per student, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. Despite being the least funded institutions in the United States, community college faculty and staff, from Berkeley to the Bronx, are oozing with passion and commitment to their students. They are equally passionate about education’s potential to level the playing field in the pursuit of social and economic justice and democracy. Each college is tethered to its community through service, turning on a dime to meet community needs and often doing so without having the dime.

Here are three key lessons we learned about ways community colleges provide access with equal commitment to success, create welcoming campus climates, and help build and sustain communities, all in efforts to anchor our democracy.

1. Know your students and remain passionate about opening doors to opportunity. The community college faculty and staff that we write about have learned about the needs, challenges, and successes of first-generation students, students of color, student parents, adult learners, students who are food and housing insecure, and those deemed academically underprepared. These educators’ expertise in teaching and learning is well informed by the loving understanding of students who are living life and not just preparing for it. The faculty and staff have developed programs, pedagogy, curricula, and wraparound services to help each student succeed, from academic support to career counseling to assistance with basic needs like food, transportation, and childcare. All of the students we met expect to find good jobs at good wages as a result of their education. In response, community colleges must partner with four-year colleges to develop opportunities for transfer and also with local business and industry to create opportunities for students to enter the workforce directly. Equity, inclusion, and diversity must be shared cultural values, embedded in the day-to-day work of community colleges. Administrators, faculty, and staff at each of the college communities we visited understand and are passionately committed to the relationship between opening the doors of higher education and sustaining democracy.

2. Create a sense of belonging and community on campus. AACC, then the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges, defines community “not only as a region to be served, but also as a climate to be created” in its 1988 report Building Communities: A Vision for a New Century. The students we met talked passionately about community and belonging as significant to their college experience. For example, one student told us that staff at her college called to check on her when she was sick and that she felt the college treated her like family.

Student life centers are often a space for community building but so are campus fitness centers; gymnasiums; rodeo arenas; outdoor learning labs; libraries; dining commons; tutoring centers; art, music and academic studios; and hogans or hooghans, sacred homes for the Diné (Navajo) people. College leaders must walk the halls of their colleges with purpose and authenticity, building community by showing genuine care for students, faculty, and staff. The campuses we visited model the community they want the world to become, each embracing the stated egalitarian values of our democracy.

3. Be as active and engaged in the community as on campus. The presidents we talked with are fully engaged in the social and economic development of the communities they serve. “Yes” is the default response to a request for community collaboration. They sit on local boards and committees with business, health care, and elected leaders and work to address community challenges like food insecurity, the opioid crisis, and teacher and nurse shortages. These leaders attend the community’s celebrations and events, whether they are held in the public schools, at the local chamber of commerce, or on the town common. They open their college’s doors to host community conversations and activities, and they invite the local community to campus for art shows and other cultural events. They are approachable; they engage with members of the community while attending community events or shopping in local markets. To be effective, college leaders must also be leaders in their communities.

For community college leaders to continue this work, they must be adequately supported. No segment of higher education is more committed to our nation’s ideals nor more important to our society’s ability to live up to them. Yet state and federal funding remains woefully inadequate to support these commitments. Community colleges must continue to provide access and opportunity for all who aspire to a better life, strengthening families and communities in the process. In so doing, those colleges make good on higher education’s mandate to strengthen our nation’s democracy, one student at a time.

This article is adapted from the book The Community’s College: The Pursuit of Democracy, Economic Development, and Success, by Robert L. Pura and Tara L. Parker, which will be copublished in June 2022 by the American Association of Colleges and Universities and Stylus Publishing.

Photo courtesy of Community College of Aurora


  • Robert Pura

    Robert L. Pura

    Robert L. Pura is a retired president of Greenfield Community College.

  • Tara Parker

    Tara L. Parker

    Tara L. Parker is chair of the Department of Leadership in Education and professor of higher education at the University of Massachusetts Boston.