Grantee Spotlights

Mobilizing the Community College Student Vote



Grantee Spotlight

Democracy Desk

Mobilizing the Community College Student Vote

April is Community College Month, a time to recognize the important role community colleges play in higher education. To mark the occasion, we are spotlighting two of our grantees that are supporting student voters in those institutions. Getting out the vote in these two-year institutions can be tricky because many students are trying to juggle school, work, and family responsibilities. Two of our grantees, Campus Vote Project and Students Learn Students Vote, are working tirelessly to spur voter engagement and facilitate greater access for all students, particularly those at community colleges, where student paths can be much different, less traditional, and with fewer resources than their four-year university counterparts.

Campus Vote Project works with universities, community colleges, faculty, students and election officials to reduce barriers to student voting, and empowers students with accurate and nonpartisan information to register and vote. They work with more than 280 colleges and universities across 41 states, including in the Great Lakes region, impacting more than 3 million students. The Students Learn Students Vote Coalition is the national hub and largest nonpartisan network in the nation dedicated to increasing college student voter participation, providing training and toolkits for students and campus administrators to build voter engagement into everyday campus activities.

Among the core strategies of both organizations is to infuse a culture of voting into campus culture and connect students with resources to support student organizing and nonpartisan voter engagement activities on college campuses.

Their work has helped propel historic voter engagement at community colleges in the Great Lakes region, where Inver Hills Community College in Minnesota received the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge Award for Highest Voting Rate at a Community College in 2020, with a turnout of 72 percent. ALL IN is an SLSV coalition partner. They’ve also encouraged innovative “Get out the Vote” campaigns like “Rock the Polls” and “Code Red White & Blue” at Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio.

We recently spoke with the leaders of both organizations — and a former community college student and current collegiate voting student leader — about their work this election cycle and beyond, and the organizing challenges and breakthroughs of meeting the needs and unique concerns of community college students.

From left to right: Mike Burns, Clarissa Unger, and Zena Aljilaihawi.

The Joyce Foundation (JF): Can you give us an idea of the landscape for youth engagement for the 2024 election, and why are community college students an important part of the equation?

Mike Burns, National Director, Campus Vote Project: “Students are underrepresented in the electorate. Historically, we haven’t done a great job building on-ramps for new voters to become part of our democracy, but we’re trying to hold a seat at the table. Many don’t know that there’s a requirement in the Higher Education Act (which the US Department of Education carries out) that campuses make good faith efforts to distribute voter registration forms; these institutions are trusted sources of information for student populations at a time when there’s not a lot of good sources of information.

Every semester in every year in every election there are new groups of students moving through these institutions who are probably first-time voters, and we need to continue to think about what are we doing to help them navigate our democracy and have the other civic skills needed to do this work. Big picture, that’s why we think these institutions and reaching this population to have a robust democracy is important.”

A Huge Need and Opportunity for Growth

Clarissa Unger, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Students Learn Students Vote (SLSV): “There are over 1,000 community colleges nationwide. About 30 percent of undergraduates attend community college, so it’s huge chunk of students and according to the American Association of Community Colleges the majority of those students are nonwhite, so it’s a very diverse student population.

The National Study of Learning, Voting & Engagement (N-SOLVE) found that in the in 2020 elections, students who attended two-year public institutions were registered and voted at about nine percentage points less on average than students at public four-year institutions.

We have found that sometimes there are fewer resources, generally, at community colleges. So there’s definitely a lot of room for growth and a huge opportunity to engage these students a lot more.”

Centering Student Voices

Zena Aljilehawi, a Campus Vote Project Democracy Fellow and former student at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan, says the fellowship helped her learn about the importance of voter engagement in every election, from the top to the bottom of the ballot, giving her a special appreciation meeting the needs of community college students from diverse backgrounds. Aljilehawi completed her studies at Henry Ford College and has now transferred to University of Michigan. She is currently chair of the Michigan Secretary of State’s Collegiate Student Advisory Taskforce.

JF: Why is it important for organizations like Campus Vote and SLSV to pay particular attention and pour resources into community colleges?

Zena Aljilehawi: “Millions of students nationwide attend community colleges, making up a big part of the higher education population. This major group can affect the results of elections, especially local ones, where decisions can directly affect school spending and policies. Our role as democracy fellows helps ensure we can present accurate civic education to our classmates from a local voice they know and trust.”

Dismantling Barriers to Voting

JF: What are some of the barriers to community college students voting and how is your work dismantling those barriers and creating access?

Mike Burns: “A lot of community college students are likely to be first-time college attendees. There’s a mix of ages, some community colleges have on-campus housing. Many students are parents, have jobs outside of school, a whole range of life experience. Student voters and young voters have never been a monolith but even working with different community colleges, there’s a wide range of populations served.

That’s why the work needs to be rooted in the institution…making sure we’re meeting every campus community where they’re at with the resources they have. Having a tailored campus plan is so important to this work.”

Clarissa Unger: “We have a four-step process to work with campuses to institutionalize work for the long term. One of those strategies is to work with a campus designee—an administrator or faculty to lead efforts and engage diverse coalitions of students—to write and implement an action plan. This is our core approach at community colleges, where there’s a ton of turnover, students might just be there 1 or 2 years. We work hard to focus on student leadership to institutionalize work and make sure it becomes part of campus culture.

Community colleges are incredibly understaffed. Administrators and staffers hold multiple roles on their campus already. So civic engagement and voter engagement work becomes just another thing on top of all that they’re already asked to do, so sometimes it’s lower on the priority list than places like 4-year institutions that might have entire centers dedicated to civic engagement.”

Zena Aljilehawi: “As an Arab-American woman, my cultural background and leadership experience with my college’s honors program helped me share the importance of voting and student participation in local electoral politics with my fellow students at Henry Ford College. I had the opportunity to demonstrate to my fellow students the immense influence they can have by casting their ballots for policies that directly impact them, by paying close attention to the entire ticket and ballot proposals—which are often the issues that have the greatest impact on them—and by actively participating in local politics, which often receive less attention than national politics.”

JF: How important is policy implementation on the state and federal level to your coalition and can you point to any policy wins that have benefitted students?

Clarissa Unger: “For the first time ever, the US Department of Education released a student voter participation toolkit. It’s a great example of something that SLSV, Campus Vote, and All In Campus Democracy Challenge for years advocated for, and now this policy has been implemented. The toolkit offers expanded guidance on the use of federal work-study for students doing voter registration on their campus or through local election offices.

Now our organizations have come together to release a toolkit to help campuses have a better sense of how to access these funds, and how best to use them. We’re also going to higher education conferences where administrators and students are to make sure they’re aware that this is something they can be used to pay students to do this work. It makes the work much more equitable when we can ensure that students are paid to engage their peers through frameworks that are supported on campus. The (federal) toolkit is going to be huge, in particular for community colleges, which, like we’ve already talked about, already have very little resources that they can put to this kind of work.”

Mike Burns: “It’s interesting to do this work in such a cyclical way because we’re working on the academic calendar with new cohorts of students all the time but we’re trying to do it every semester, every year so that there’s a baseline at the institution and in the policy work, and we’re not just leaving it to student organizations where there’s matriculation. It’s why the action plans are so important to keep the work going. The elections are just an inflection point in what needs to be year-round work.”

Clarissa Unger: “It also emphasizes the importance of this work being all year work every year. The policies are great but, if we don’t focus on the implementation, we have policies that are helpful for sure but aren’t really being implemented properly. The fact that our organizations and others are able to work with campuses and provide them with support year-round every year makes a difference when something like this toolkit comes out because we’re already prepared to help with implementation.”

JF: Working with students must be energizing, but how do you guard against moments of disillusionment?

Mike Burns: “We can have a better country if we can get more young people to participate sooner in this process and I think we’re doing it, I think we’re going in the right direction. And the reason I get frustrated sometimes is because there’s a segment of the population that is being intentionally denied that same progress and that is unacceptable…until we can break that down we have to keep working as hard as we possibly can. We’re going in the right direction and we’re making a lot of progress and there’s some really awesome people who are part of this movement.”

“We’re really proud of programs like the Collegiate Student Advisory Task Force in Michigan, and democracy fellowships where students get stipends to be leaders in work. We want the work to be institutionalized and nonpartisan so there’s that space at every campus and there’s longevity to it, but we still want it to be student driven. The student stipend program offers so many opportunities. Students are learning civics and voter education and organizing tactics, and being leaders among their peers, and being paid for it. It creates a direct pathway to other career opportunities that they might not have thought of before.”

The Importance of Peer Engagement

Zena Aljilehawi: “I have learned how to navigate difficult conversations about how to process frustration with the current political system through voicing student opinion by voting, especially in the Arab-American community. I’ve also had the chance to speak to local clerks about the job they do and learned just how much these hard-working people are the backbone of our democracy. I continue to lead as Chair of the Collegiate Student Advisory Task Force as a University of Michigan student, and I am currently involved with Turn Up Turnout here at U-M, which is a non-partisan student voting rights group that does amazing work on campus with voter registration, and we also advocate in local high schools for young students to be involved in electoral politics and help them register to vote. We’re trying to recruit as many students as possible to be poll workers! I plan on being as active and dedicated as ever to student voting as we get ready for a highly contested election in 2024.”

2023 National Student Vote Summit

About The Joyce Foundation

Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.

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