In today’s highly polarized times, I increasingly find community in institutions of higher education. I see it in our community colleges, in particular, especially as students return to campuses. Open to all who seek an opportunity and serving all ages, community colleges offer credit courses, programs for transfer, programs for jobs, ESL, high school equivalency, and more often than not non-credit programs to meet local needs. They’ve been vaccination sites, food pantry sites, and hosts to everything from sporting events to public meetings. Community colleges give hope and encouragement for an inclusive, democratic better-educated tomorrow.
In 2020, Campus Compact, a national organization of colleges and universities committed to civic education and engagement through service, published Community Colleges for Democracy: Aligning Civic and Community Engagement with Institutional Priorities. (Full disclosure: I am a supporter of Campus Compact and currently serve on their board). Edited by Verdis L. Robinson and Clayton A. Hurd, the book contains a strong introduction and overview, followed by case studies from eight community colleges around the country that have made civic engagement an institutional priority. The programs range from work done in California between community colleges and the California State University system, to Piedmont Virginia College’s work to increase community engagement after the racist violence in the summer of 2017, to an initiative at Lone Star College in Kingwood, Texas, to give students a robust hands-on political experience. Across all examples, common themes emerge. Student engagement, retention and success improve with intentional community and civic programming. Each institution finds its own path in response to the interest and needs of its environs. Civic engagement and education is challenging work, too; there are no easy paths. For anyone interested in learning how different community colleges have attempted civics, the volume offers interesting examples.
The book’s greatest use, though, is found in Robinson’s introduction and the first chapter by John Saltmarsh and Glenn Gabbard. Robinson grounds the focus on the book, as well as the mission of America’s community colleges, in the 1947 Truman Commission. He traces various organizational efforts from the 1990s as institutions worked on bolstering community engagement. He notes that the disconnect between the public benefit of community colleges and public support for community colleges is of more than academic interest. It speaks to civic leadership, investment, and the strength of our communities.
Saltmarsh and Gabbard’s chapter, “Civic Learning and Engagement at Community Colleges: Institutional Characteristics and Practices of Community Engaged Campuses” is based on research funded by the Kettering Foundation. The authors took a close look at seventeen colleges that had received Carnegie Foundation Community Engagement designation. Seeking the designation is a demanding and time-consuming process. Institutions earning the classification have made civic engagement a priority and we can learn from them. The research findings were clear, too, as all of the colleges in the sample shared the following characteristics:
- Articulated civic mission
- Executive leadership that aligns mission with “regular” college imperatives
- Civic mission rests on service learning and, by extension, the faculty
- Infrastructure to support all of the above
Saltmarsh and Gabbard are careful not to read too much into the research. They observe that questions of quality, impact on student engagement and success, and questions of what it might mean to be an “anchor institution” call for more sustained investigation. The authors also make recommendations as to how other institutions might pursue community and civic engagement. Service learning, they stress, is a reliable step towards the “institutionalization” of this worthy goal.
Service learning, for those not familiar, is a process by which classroom learning is combined with in-the-field experience meeting community needs. It requires dedicated faculty willing to stretch normal classroom teaching and learning, as well as long-term institutional relationships with community partners. When implemented effectively, it has a powerful impact on students and institutions. Reading this chapter intrigued me, for I believe that more attention and innovation is needed for the next, post-Covid iteration, of service learning. New models are essential.
While many might reference higher education as a private or personal good (“look how much more money I’m making now that I have a credential!”), when we think about the collective power of an institution, it’s important to remember the profound impact of a college might have on all of its stakeholders, including its neighbors. Community Colleges for Democracy makes that abundantly clear. America’s community colleges are public goods in may different forms. And when they make an explicit commitment to community and civic engagement, truly pursuing that democratic imperative, the benefits are very impressive.