Sunday, February 04, 2018

Civic Engagement at Community Colleges

In 2016, if you didn’t know there was an election going on, you wouldn’t have known it from student conversations on campus.  In 2017, as New Jersey elected a new governor, I never heard a single student conversation about it, even as the winning candidate ran on a “free community college” platform.  

I don’t make a habit of eavesdropping on student conversations, obviously, but as you walk around campus, you hear things.  I’ve heard discussions of classes, jobs, relationships, cars, birthdays, pets, weed, and money.  But I literally never hear discussions of electoral politics, or of political engagement more broadly.  

The national press likes to paint college campuses as hotbeds of liberalism, in which a few brave conservative voices are righteously persecuted (or, sometimes, as last holdouts of reasoned debate being attacked by know-nothings).  And that may be true at the Oberlins of the world.  Certainly, when I was at Williams, politics was a frequent topic of discussion.  But it’s not true here.  I don’t recognize the two-year sector in those discussions.  

And that’s a shame, because it matters more here.  This is where you see students from every income level and every racial and ethnic group.  This is where the impact of wealth polarization, health care policy, and the working conditions of hourly workers are felt most strongly.

(I’ll grant a partial exception for discussions of DACA.  But even those have mostly been around individual coping strategies, rather than organizing for policy changes.)

Community colleges have nearly half of the undergraduates in America, but occupy nowhere near half of the policy discussion around higher ed.  Some of that is historical habit and much of it is the distorting effect of wealth, but some of it may be at least partially self-inflicted.  As a sector, we have not taken the lead in encouraging civic participation among students.

We should.  I was struck that the latest piece from APSA on civic engagement in higher ed was written by two people at Tufts.  I was struck, too, at this piece from the Boston Globe pointing out that the birthrate dip of 2008 will hit colleges in 2025.  That’s close enough to factor into plans around, say, construction.  Allowing more of our institutional budgets to shift from states and localities to students puts us in a vulnerable spot when the student population drops.

If community colleges and our students aren’t going to be left behind, we have to make our presence felt.  That means making a deliberate choice to encourage students to have those political conversations on campus.

As leaders of public institutions, obviously, we need to be careful not to push too hard in one partisan direction or the other.  Citizens of both parties, or no parties, pay taxes.  But I don’t see anything wrong with, say, providing opportunities for students to speak out on issues of concern to them, and encouraging them to do so.

Community college students may not have the time and wealth to make their presence felt as strongly as their peers elsewhere, but that can also become self-perpetuating.  I’d love to have the 12,000+ students at Brookdale seen as a valuable voting bloc.  They should be.  I’m not asking for culture wars, but surely some purchase on the political process should be part of learning how to be a citizen.  Community colleges are for the community.  A community without some form of civic engagement isn’t a community at all.