A new push to get community college students to the polls

May 13, 2024
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Major companies and voter registration groups have formed a new coalition to increase voting among community college students, whose voting rates historically have lagged behind their four-year college< and university peers.

The nonpartisan initiative, called the Community College Commitment, hopes to turn out 500,000 new community college student voters by 2028, starting with this presidential election cycle, largely by funding and facilitating voter registration events on community college campuses. It is spearheaded by Levi Strauss & Co. along with Lyft and SHOWTIME/MTV Entertainment Studios and Paramount Global, in partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition (SLSV) and other organizations dedicated to getting students out to the polls.

“This is really just the start,” said Clarissa Unger, co-founder and executive director of the SLSV Coalition. “And we’re not just thinking about community colleges [during] this major presidential election, but we’ll be continuing to focus and support them throughout the years to come.”

The initiative centers on doling out grants, ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, for community colleges to host voting drives and other projects that could encourage students to vote. The coalition is also hosting a concert competition, in which community colleges can win a fully funded concert on campus on Vote Early Day in October if they engage in a series of voter registration efforts, such as celebrating civic holidays like National Voter Registration Day and joining the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, in which campuses craft plans to increase voting rates.

Get-out-the-vote efforts are “not new to community colleges,” said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the AACC. Her association regularly helps such institutions put out voting information and hold registration drives. But what’s new is the launch of an initiative with a “national focus on community colleges” that recognizes those students as a sizable chunk of youth voters, she said, noting that almost 40 percent of postsecondary students in the U.S. attend community colleges.

“We can talk for hours about the benefits of community college, how it helps not just students but communities, workforce pipelines [and] local businesses,” Parham said. But she’s pleased to see both national and international companies, like Levi’s, acknowledging that “this is a significant portion of the American population and they need to have the materials and the information on why voting is so critical in the country.”

Underrepresented in the Electorate

Despite their potential impact as a voting group, community college students tend to vote at lower rates than their peers, according to data from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement at Tufts University.

For example, in 2020, 57 percent of community college students voted, compared to 66 percent of college students overall, said Adam Gismondi, director of the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement. The trend has held steady for at least a decade.

Gismondi is excited to see voting rights advocates engage in “high-profile efforts to make sure that, when we think about what it means for higher education to be serving our democracy, that community colleges are being centered in that conversation,” he said. “I think the only way for us to build the democracy that we want is to think in new ways and not be stuck in processes that are just perpetuating inequities.”

Unger noted that community college students might be less likely than their four-year peers to access information about voting because they’re often busy commuting to and from campuses and juggling jobs and parenting alongside their studies.

She added that voter registration efforts sometimes target four-year institutions because many of those students live on campus, making them easier to reach. Community colleges also have less staffing and fewer resources to host voter registration drives and events. That’s partly why Community College Commitment has been making a push to inform colleges—particularly under-resourced ones— that they can use federal work-study funds for nonpartisan voter registration efforts, a matter the U.S. Department of Education clarified in a notice earlier this year.

“A lot of the administrators and faculty members that we work with are doing multiple jobs and are stretched very thin,” Unger said. “And so, civic engagement can sometimes just seem like something else on the list of many things that they’re already doing to support their students.”

Unger believes it’s vital to include community college students’ voices in the country’s democratic process. She emphasized that they tend to be racially and economically diverse and disproportionately first-generation students.

“By promoting student voter engagement at community colleges, we can help make students voters in the U.S. electorate as a whole more fully representative of our country,” she said.

Some community colleges engaging in this work are eager to grow their efforts. Multiple colleges, including Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio and Inver Hills Community College in Minnesota, have already expressed interest in vying for the on-campus concert opportunity. The SLSV Coalition has worked with about 400 community colleges since 2020 through its various voter engagement programs. Unger said 47 of those institutions have participated in the “Ask Every Student” program, which helps colleges incorporate voter registration into classes, orientations or other routine activities.

Allegany College of Maryland, for example, received a grant to mail voting information to students during the COVID-19 pandemic, given that many students who attended the rural college had spotty internet at home. The college saw its voting rate rise by about 6 percent, said Diane McMahon, sociology professor and faculty director of the College to Community Partnership Center. The college sent half its faculty to a voter registration training with the local election board in 2022. Professors were then tasked with incorporating voting information into their teaching, whether that meant looking at voting statistics in a math class or studying the history of voting rights in a history class. The college also recently added a voting portal to its website, and this past semester, McMahon taught a pilot introduction to sociology class focused on voting and democracy.

“A lot of times people say, ‘You’ve got to get out and vote,’ and people say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t make a difference. My one little vote is not going to make a change,’” she said. She wanted to get across to students in her class “why democracy is important, and why voting is a tool of democracy,” as well as how voting can affect real issues they care about, from global warming to abortion rights.

Allegany plans to throw its hat in the ring for the Community College Commitment’s concert competition, provided administrators can figure out the logistics of hosting it.

 A concert would bring attention to the small, rural college, McMahon said, and in the lead-up to November, send a message that it’s an “important time for students to get involved, to let their voice be heard.”



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