Mobilizing Community College Students to Protect Our Democracy

Mobilizing Community College Students to Protect Our Democracy

These are extraordinary times. From education to immigrant rights to health care, it seems we wake up every day to news of fresh assaults on equity, opportunity, and inclusion.

In the education area, proposals floated by the administration slash budgets for public education, including a draconian 50 percent cut for college work-study programs, and the administration and its allies in Congress are engaged in an ongoing effort to dismantle hard-fought rules that protect postsecondary students and their families from predatory lenders and fraudulent for-profit colleges. If passed, mean-spirited healthcare proposals would strip essential coverage from millions of vulnerable people. And a recently enacted ban on refugees fleeing persecution and harm is tearing apart families and communities.

And all this in only seven months. Confronted by this relentless assault on our values, there is a real danger that we will grow numb to the enormous challenges we face, or become overwhelmed by the amount of work needed to repair the damage. But we simply can't afford to give up or give in. Too much is at stake. In this extraordinarily fraught moment, we must embrace new, extraordinary measures to advance the values and priorities we share. We have to think differently — and bigger — about how to make a difference.

For the Rappaport Family Foundation, that means ramping up our commitment to a population whose voice, power, and potential are too often ignored: the twelve million students enrolled at more than twelve hundred community college systems across the country. Over the next fourteen months, we will commit $2 million to efforts aimed at mobilizing and training student leaders as advocates for positive social change, with a focus on community college students.

Why invest in strengthening leadership and advocacy for community college students? Because they represent the future of the country. Today, almost half of undergraduates in the United States are enrolled in community colleges. Compared to students at the nation's four-year colleges and universities, community college students are significantly more diverse. According to the latest tally by the American Association of Community Colleges, close to 50 percent of community college students are non-white; 36 percent are the first in their families to attend college; 17 percent are single parents; and 12 percent have a disability.

By mobilizing students to become active in their communities (and society more broadly), we ensure that government and other institutions are more accountable to everybody — not just the privileged (or loudest) few.

Across the country, we've seen what can happen when community college students are engaged and involved.

  • In North Carolina, where Young People For launched a community college initiative in 2015, students are advocating to expand voting rights and fighting against anti-LGBT and anti-Muslim sentiment.
  • At De Anza College in Northern California, students successfully lobbied the local transit agency to adopt a discounted student bus pass policy — a victory that not only has saved thousands of students money but also has had a positive environmental impact on surrounding communities.
  • In California, thanks to the leadership of the Campaign for College Opportunity, community college students helped win a $60 million investment from the state of California so that millions of students placed in pre-college-level courses can catch up and get on track to achieve their college dreams.

As these examples show, creating opportunities for students to flex their activist muscles delivers immediate dividends. But there's also a longer-term payoff. When students lead and engage in these and other ways, it delivers untold benefits for communities and society — not just today, but for decades to come. At a time when many of us are wondering how we can save our democracy and create a fairer, more inclusive society, we cannot and should not ignore the leadership of community college students.

Now is the time to support and help students develop their leadership skills, raise up their voices, and work together to make a difference. How can you support community college students? 

For more information, visit http://rappaportfamilyfoundation.org.

Catalina Ruiz-Healy is vice president of the Rappaport Family Foundation in San Francisco.