Two students at a community college food pantry.
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Community Colleges: Anchors of Democracy

As COVID-19 spread and other colleges and universities followed suit, the presidents of community colleges—institutions that have fewer resources and serve more at-risk students—were forced to think cautiously about the decision to close.

By Robert L. Pura

May 18, 2020

On February 9, as I drove from Massachusetts to New York City to visit Hostos Community College for a book I’m writing, the pandemic was nowhere in my thoughts. The front page of the Boston Globe that Sunday morning was far more focused on the New Hampshire primary than the coronavirus. I wasn’t concerned about shaking hands with Hostos students, faculty, or staff the next day in the Bronx. Then, the following morning, I woke to the headline that Harvard University was closing its campus and moving classes online. Students were told to leave their dorms and head home.

As COVID-19 spread and other colleges and universities followed suit, the presidents of community colleges—institutions that have fewer resources and serve more at-risk students—were forced to think cautiously about the decision to close. On the one hand, there is the concern for safety; on the other, concerns about the realities of students’ lives. What exactly would community college students be going home to?

As Northern Essex Community College President Lane Glenn wrote, “If a community college ‘closes’ and stops offering face-to-face classes, we run the risk of delaying or completely derailing our students’ ability to complete their courses, endangering their financial aid, limiting their access to childcare, food and housing assistance, and pushing them, and perhaps families who depend on them, into more desperate living conditions.”

Community colleges ultimately closed their campuses, moved to remote learning, and canceled all campus activities. Many kept their food pantries open. Community colleges have also spent millions of unfunded dollars to help students with Wi-Fi hotspots, software, and laptop computers.

Responding to Student Needs

Community colleges are offering remote access to counseling, tutoring, and one-on-one advising. They have also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through their development offices to support students’ emergency needs.

Belonging to community increases the success of all students, but that connection is especially important for community college students. Building community is what community colleges do; it’s in their DNA. Leadership, faculty, and staff are reaching out in a myriad of new and creative ways to contradict the conditions of isolation. Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College, said, “Every student gets a touch.” They are calling, texting, emailing, Zooming—“whatever it takes to stay connected with our students.” Greenfield Community College Professor Linda Cavanaugh told me, “Connecting with my student on Zoom while she is in her kitchen with her kids running around is a whole new level of intimacy and understanding.”

Preparing for Recession

Enrollment at community colleges is often tied to the economy. As many as 25 percent of community college students may not return in the fall. FAFSA applications are down by 350,000 overall, with 250,000 fewer from students with low-income backgrounds. Many are community college students.

It may also be that with millions of Americans out of work, community colleges will see a significant increase in enrollment. Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, says, “One thing community colleges do better than the four-year sector is respond to these ebbs and flows in student enrollments because they’re open admission.” Brock cites as an example that many are successfully adapting their classes and programs to meet the labor needs of local employers. Oakton Community College, for example, has developed a program to train contact tracers crucial to slowing the spread of COVID-19 and reopening the economy.

Anchors of Community

At the epicenter of this pandemic, the City University of New York community colleges have responded by donating supplies and volunteering at local hospitals. The Borough of Manhattan Community College EMT instructors are not only teaching remotely, they are also working in ambulances. Queensborough Community College faculty, alumni, and nursing students are volunteering on the front lines. Hostos Community College applied for state approval to allow nursing students to graduate early. Medical lab technicians at Bronx Community College are running screening tests at hospitals.

David Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System, where dorms have been repurposed for first responders opting not to go home, said, “For all of the health and economic suffering caused by this pandemic, there is a palpable warmth of spirit and human kindness that is growing in our communities. People are finding new, meaningful ways to connect that have a greater depth and sincerity of purpose. There is also a rekindled ingenuity that has fueled the heart and soul of America from its inception.”

Anchors of Democracy

The pandemic has illuminated the binary nature of our economy and our health care and educational systems. The inequities are startling—and heartbreaking. It’s the community college student who has been most at risk from disruption in higher education. And it’s the communities those colleges serve that have been most vulnerable to the coronavirus. The leadership, faculty, and staff of America’s community colleges have stood heroically alongside key partners in health care, law enforcement, government, and business battling this pandemic and its economic impact.

Democracy can never be realized in a separate and inequitable society; it is the outcome of a nation’s collective commitment to provide an excellent education for all. Education at its best does not occur behind an ivy-covered wall separate from the realities of everyday life; rather, education must be an integrated fiber in the tapestry of community. America’s community colleges provide hope for students, for their families, and for the communities they serve. The collective work of community college faculty and staff is not only to prepare students for the workforce or an affordable first step to a four-year degree. It is also their collective purpose to prepare students for active and engaged citizenship. Without strong communities, a nation is built on a house of cards. As key stakeholders in rebuilding the communities of America, community colleges make good on higher education’s mandate to strengthen and sustain our democracy, one student at a time.

Robert Pura served as president of Greenfield Community College from 2000 to 2018. His book on the relationship between community colleges and democracy, coauthored by Tara Parker, will be published by AAC&U later this year.


  • Robert Pura

    Robert L. Pura

    Robert L. Pura retired after forty years of service as a teacher and administrator in the Massachusetts Community College System, the last eighteen as president of Greenfield Community College. He is currently senior fellow for community college leadership in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Massachusetts–Boston. Along with Tara L. Parker, he is coauthor of the forthcoming book, The Community’s College and the Pursuit of Democracy, Socioeconomic Development, and Success.