Community Colleges: A Brief History

Glenn Ricketts

Community colleges have been generating a lot of press coverage lately, especially with President Obama’s recent speech proposing that they would be the central educational component in his administration’s economic recovery program. For too long, the president asserted, community colleges had been dismissed as the “stepchild of the higher education system,” relegated to the sidelines by undue emphasis on elite four-year institutions.  Community colleges, Obama declared, would be the point of access to higher education, re-training and job skills for many students, and the president proposed a $12 billion fund to assist them in providing these services. Community college leaders were delighted, especially since many of them preside over institutions facing budget cuts, hiring freezes, tuition caps, and dramatically surging enrollment influxes. 

Enrollment growth is nothing new: during the last three decades, long before Obama’s speech and the current economic recession, community colleges have had to accommodate increasing numbers of students (1, 2), a trend that I’ve had the opportunity to observe first-hand as a fulltime community college faculty member. New classrooms and laboratories have not been able to hold the growing numbers, and some two-year schools have been obliged to wait-list students for lack of space.

Community colleges are a permanent and indispensable sector of the American higher educational system, and NAS would like to present a new series of articles which will examine the evolving role of community colleges, as well as the particular prospects and challenges confronting them. To begin, I’ll provide a brief historical overview of the development of today’s typical community college: a public, two-year institution closely connected to the region that it serves, providing a range of educational programs, such as career preparation, technical training and, usually most importantly, the first two years of preparation toward a baccalaureate degree.

There are various threads in the origins of the modern community college which represent the convergence of disparate beginnings in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Since most present-day two-year schools are public, some educators would cite the establishment of land-grant colleges in 1862 by the Morrill Act as the ultimate progenitor of community colleges, especially in view of its emphasis on agriculture and occupational curricular content, and the extension of higher educational opportunities to students previously excluded. But in fact, many of the early predecessors of community colleges arose in response to purely local initiatives, usually under private sponsorship, reflecting a wide variety of purposes and curricular goals. Some of them offered vocational or technical training in response to rapid industrialization and growing demands for business management skills in the workforce. Some by contrast had confessional roots, and reflected the missions of various religious denominations, while still others were intended to produce qualified elementary and secondary school teachers as public education systems expanded.  In this regard, it isn’t surprising that a number of early community colleges, such as Joliet Junior College in Illinois, began as extensions of high school education and were under the jurisdiction of local school boards.

Joliet, often cited as the first genuine community college in the United States, was founded in 1901 at the behest of William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago.  Universities such his own, Harper believed, should be primarily concerned with the disciplinary specialization undertaken in the junior and senior undergraduate years, with particularly heavy emphasis on faculty research and post-graduate education. But with a larger number of students graduating from high school, the demand for post-secondary education had grown considerably, and four-year academic institutions were under increasing pressure to admit larger freshman classes. Many of these students, however, even if they had legitimate need for some additional study beyond high school, were either not in need of or, more often, not qualified for advanced collegiate studies;  as a result, Harper and other prominent figures in American higher education argued vigorously for the establishment of intermediate institutions such as Joliet.   The creation of such schools would serve a dual purpose. First, they would accommodate the many students in need of further education but not qualified to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Second, they would provide the general liberal arts curricula sought by students eligible for higher education, enabling them to receive their initial undergraduate education locally before transferring to four year schools. Then four year schools would not need to continually expand freshman admissions and could thus allocate most of their resources at the levels recommended by Harper.

The idea took hold quickly, and the number of junior colleges, a majority of them still private institutions, grew rapidly. In 1920, the American Association of Junior Colleges was organized, and by 1930, junior colleges – whether oriented toward liberal arts college preparation or occupational education – could be found in all but five states. During the 1930s, as a result of the widespread unemployment precipitated by the Great Depression, many two-year schools, some recently created by federal funding, shifted their curricular priorities to the training of “semiprofessionals,” as junior college graduates seeking to expand their job prospects came to be designated. Similar to present-day community colleges, these institutions provided education that was both local and affordable, and they served the needs of those for whom a bachelor’s degree was beyond reach.

Two events following World War II exerted major influence in the ongoing evolution of two-year colleges. In 1944, Congress produced the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act – better know as the GI bill – which provided financial assistance for demobilized servicemen wanting to pursue a college education. This extremely popular measure removed many longstanding social and economic obstacles to higher education; American colleges and universities were suddenly overwhelmed by an enormous influx of new and often under-prepared students, straining their resources enormously. In response, President Harry Truman convened his Commission on Higher Education in the summer of 1946, a panel of 28 educators and consultants chaired by George F. Zook, president of the American Council on Education. The commission’s report, released in December 1947, made numerous wide-ranging recommendations, with an especially strong emphasis on providing equality of educational opportunity for all aspiring students, irrespective of racial or religious origins or economic limitations. Key to realizing this goal, the commission stressed, was the need to:

develop much more extensively than at present such opportunities as are now provided in local communities by the two-year junior college, community institute, community college or institute of arts and science. The name does not matter, though community college seems to describe these schools best; the important thing is that the services they perform be recognized and vastly extended. 

Thus was popularized the familiar term “community college,” and the mantle of legitimacy conferred on two-year academic institutions by the president of the United States. 

Elation and expansion followed, as “community colleges,” until this time largely private institutions, began to be established widely under public auspices, with public funding, often as part of state systems such as the State University of New York. In 1951, the SUNY system established its first community college in Jamestown, New York. Other public systems followed suit. Elsewhere, public community colleges were established under dual state/county funding arrangements, with boards of governors variously chosen by appointment, election, or some combination of both. And as the “baby boom” generation born of the GI Bill beneficiaries came of age, the largest freshman cohorts in the history of American higher education engulfed colleges and universities at all levels. Not surprisingly, community college construction and expansion accelerated accordingly, reaching their zenith during the 1960s and 1970s. 

At present, most community colleges embody the “collegiate function” envisioned by William Rainey Harper at the beginning of the 20th century: that they provide the first two years of baccalaureate education for students who then transfer to four-year institutions to complete their B.A. degrees. At my own community college and at many others, this is increasingly the option of “good” students as well as more marginal ones, who find it an attractive alternative in the face of ever steepening costs at four-year schools. Community colleges also provide low-cost summer options for students from four-year schools seeking to satisfy liberal arts requirements at lower rates of tuition. And true to their vocational and technical roots, most community colleges also provide programs and services for other types of students as well. These programs typically include fields such as nursing, computer programming, or criminal justice, in which recruits for local police forces often receive their academic training.

As in 1947, today’s community college leaders and supporters have been buoyed by a presidential endorsement, as well as federal funding. In response, we’d like to examine community college education within American higher education as a whole. Some of the particular themes our writers will consider include: the future of “open” admissions, long a staple at community colleges; the increasing need to provide remedial education in face of lower levels of student preparation, especially among traditional freshmen; the role of online education, increasingly attractive to administrators burdened by overcrowded classrooms; academic freedom and intellectual vitality; academic standards and the possible tensions between the academic and vocational aspects of community college programs; prospects for curricular innovation, which some of our long-time NAS members have found surprisingly fertile. No doubt there will be others and, as always, we’re open to suggestions and comments. Please let us know.

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