Community college students are usually considered “non-traditional” compared to their four year undergraduate peers; non-traditional, in the sense that they could be one, two, or all of the following: juggling 2-3 jobs, have kids, married, older, first in their family to pursue higher education, a minority, recent immigrant. (Due to economic changes this label identifying community college students is starting to change and the term “traditional student” is becoming obsolete. These students – once seen as merely working toward a vocation – must now be seen as the rising norm, and community college focus must shift to one of work, to one of employment as a citizen in a democratic society.
Community college students represent 45% of the undergraduate population, based on the research by Teachers College, Columbia University. In addition, 44% of low-income undergraduate students (families whose income is less than $25,000) attend community college. 50% of Hispanic students start at a community college and 31% of African American students. 57% of first-time college students within their family and coming from a low-income household attend community college. As the statistics show, these students are often the politically and socially marginalized and poor.
With the growing income gap in the US and the rising cost of a 4-year education we might be seeing more and more students in community colleges. A recent article by a community college professor, published by Atlantic Magazine, highlights the changing demographics in community colleges. The author discusses the increasing presence of young students in his classes, as opposed to the non-traditional older student he expected. This only indicates we need to pay even more attention to this growing community college population.
Community college students may often have non-traditional paths to higher education but increasingly these paths are becoming commonplace. As the population in community colleges grow more diverse, institutions need to emphasize the need for the students to be more civically involved. The needs of college students are changing as its demographics are too. Influencing policy can be achieved in numbers. Our engagement in policy making can shift the desperate environment for education, which, through community colleges, is now more accessible to everyone. And in a democracy, everyone must be heard.