A democracy…voting and engagement


Those of us who work in community colleges are fortunate in many ways. We enjoy the opportunity to interact with a great diversity of students who have chosen to enroll at our institutions. We know that many of our students would not have an opportunity to attend college if not for our institutions. We are rewarded by the countless student success stories about the many students who benefitted from the nurturing environment in community colleges and who have gone on to successful careers and lives. We are proud that we open our doors to “Education for All” and continually work to help our students succeed.

In addition to preparing students for careers or transfer to four-year institutions, students learn to think critically, appreciate the arts, understand the impact of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and learn about different cultures and the history that has shaped our civilization. However, there is an area that needs more attention. We must better prepare our students to meet their obligations to society and to be responsible stewards of our democracy.

A historical understanding

The government of the United States is the oldest of the current world democracies. For most policy decisions, our government is a democratic republic in that eligible citizens vote for representatives to make government appointments and to determine the laws and regulations that govern us. For our form of government to be effective, citizens must participate, including our community college students; they must become informed about issues and where policymakers and political candidates stand on them — and most importantly, they must vote. 

The author of our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, believed that a successful democracy was dependent upon the education of the general populace. Understanding how our government works and how important individual participation is should be outcomes of learning for every student at our institutions.

Most Americans do not understand just how fragile our democracy is and why it requires broad and continual participation from citizens. According to the Baker Center at Georgetown University, 32% of Americans ages 18 to 29 believe non-democracies can be preferable to democracies. The partisan divide has become so extreme that policymakers are often unable to work together for the good of our country and our people.  Some Americans do not believe that their vote will make any difference or that they are too busy to learn about the issues or the beliefs and values of policymakers and political candidates. 

A call to action

While two-thirds of college students voted in the 2020 election, the community college student voting rate was 10 percentage points lower. Students of color voted at a significantly lower percentage than White students, according to the 2024 National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement.

It is time for community colleges to double-down our efforts.

Many individuals do not appreciate or understand the struggles and sacrifices that those who came before us faced to obtain the right to vote. In the early history of our country, voting rights were based on property ownership, granting the sole power of government to White males over the age of 21 and of the Protestant religion. After the Civil War, African American men were given the right to vote by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. It wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th Amendment was approved, giving women the right to vote.  Then, in 1947, Native Americans were granted the right to vote. 

Related article: Closing the community college student voting gap

In 1965, Congress banned the use of literacy tests, poll taxes and other obstacles designed to keep people from voting. In 1971, recognizing that young Americans were serving in the military and risking their lives for our freedoms, the voting age was lowered to 18.

The right to vote in America did not come easily. People fought and died for a voice in the decisions that affect them; we shouldn’t risk losing what they fought so hard for by not supporting our democracy and not voting. Learning about the issues and voting are civic obligations for a well-functioning democracy.

More than just poli-sci classes

Some of our students enroll in political science classes where issues are studied and debated. However, we are advocating for colleges to do more. Colleges can create other ways to engage students through campus organizations and events. Speakers can be invited to share their views on issues or to participate in debates or forums. Issues that are important to students include the economy, tuition costs, inflation, student indebtedness, abortion and reproductive rights, climate change, health care, diversity, equity and inclusion, and gun violence and Second Amendment rights. 

Although colleges can provide venues for discussion of important local, state and national issues, we truly understand these discussions must remain nonpartisan.

Colleges must, unapologetically,be proactive in encouraging students to register to vote and for our students actually to vote. Education for All and more than 40 community college-related associations and state systems have endorsed a nonpartisan campaign to encourage student voting. Our campaign brief, available at https://efastudentvote.org/, provides a wealth of information to assist college leaders in promoting student civic engagement and participation in our democracy.

We stand ready to help with this important effort.

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Keith Curry, Ed.D., is president and CEO of Compton College in California. He co-founded and chaired Black Student Success Week and currently serves as chair of both the National Panel on Black Student Enrollment and the Black Student Enrollment Expert Advisory Committee.

George R. Boggs, Ph.D., is president emeritus of the American Association of Community Colleges and Palomar College in California. He is board chair of the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society and teaches doctoral classes in community college leadership at Kansas State University and San Diego State University.

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