COMMUNITY COLLEGE DEVELOPMENT IN THE UNITED STATES

National Development:Community college education in the United States has its roots in both secondary and university education. On the one hand, pressure from communities for education, including occupational training, beyond high school for local students gave rise to many two-year colleges. The public two-year schools were often extensions of secondary schools and under the governance of local boards of education. Thus, the concept that free, public education should extend to grades 13 and 14 has been a fundamental organizing principle of the community college movement from its inception. On the other hand, presidents of some of the more prestigious universities in the United States, including the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Stanford University, felt that "higher" education should concentrate on the last two years of undergraduate work in which students began to specialize in disciplines, and on graduate education and research. Thus, they advocated the creation of a system of two-year "junior" colleges which would provide the general education component of university education, and in the process, would discriminate between those capable of continuing in "higher" education and those who were not.

The modern community college, then, arose from what might be considered two opposite forces: the desire to elevate universities by emphasizing research and scholarship, and the desire to expand postsecondary education to increasing numbers of high school graduates. Both of these forces advocated greater access to postsecondary education, although for different reasons. The first community colleges, established around 1900, then were designed to accomplish these somewhat antithetical roles. They were to place post-high school education within reach of more students, at the same time relieving the pressure on universities to accept more freshmen. The number of junior colleges grew rapidly, from twenty in 1909 to 170 by 1919. Then by 1922, just two decades after their founding, 37 of 48 states had junior colleges. The colleges were established in every state but five by 1930 and numbered 450 (over 60 percent private). Originally, the majority of two-year colleges were private institutions. A total of 137 of the 207 junior colleges operating in 1922 were privately supported institutions. The number of private junior colleges peaked in 1949 at 322. Since 1952, the majority of students enrolled in two-year colleges have been in public institutions; by 1974, more than 80 percent of students enrolled in two-year institutions were in public colleges.

A study of community colleges for the Brookings Institution noted that, "Publicly supported community colleges are one of the greatest educational success stories of the last two decades." The greatest increase in community college growth and public acceptance occurred during the 1960s and early 1970s. For several years during this period, an average of one new community college per week was opened. The increase in public community college enrollments from 1960 to 1972 was a striking 930 percent, compared to 220 percent for all of higher education. Since 1975, approximately half of all first-time college students have enrolled in community colleges, which are serving increasing numbers of older, part-time students, indicating that community colleges play a significant role in postsecondary education in the United States.

There are several reasons for the rapid growth of the community colleges during the 1960s and 1970s. First, the post-World War II "Baby Boom" generation came of college age and states had to expand dramatically the number of higher education institutions to accommodate these students. Second, community colleges pioneered the open-door philosophy, which provides the opportunity of higher education for larger numbers of people, especially those who cannot gain admission to more selective institutions. This philosophy was enhanced by the emphasis placed on equal educational opportunity during these years. Enrolling more minority students became an important goal of community colleges. Two-year institutions also place increasing emphasis on the enrollment of older students most of whom can study only part-time. Finally, the growth of community colleges resulted partly from the profusion of demands placed on education at every level. Education has been viewed for at least three decades as a way to help address a variety of social and personal ills, including race, sex, and age discrimination. Community colleges have tended to view their mission as including such responsibilities and have generally offered greater access to education for minorities, older adults, displaced homemakers, blue collar workers, and students who performed poorly in high school.

However, "more than any other single factor, access depends on proximity," states the most definitive history on American community colleges, The American Community College, by Arthur M. Cohen and Florence B. Brawer, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1982. "Hence, the advent of the community college as a neighborhood institution did more to open higher education to broader segments of the population than did its policy of accepting even those students who had not done well in high school." That the growth of community colleges in the U.S. was rapid is evidenced by the fact that enrollment in public community colleges jumped from just over one-half million to more than two million from 1960 to 1970, to more than four million by 1980, to almost 5.5 million in 1992, and to 5.6 million in 2000.

Early Definitions:Probably the earliest definitive statement of the community college's role in opening postsecondary education to the general public is the report from the President's Commission on Higher Education of 1947, dubbed the "Truman Commission." The report outlined the critical role of the community college in the democratization of higher education: "As one means of achieving the expansion of educational opportunity and the diversification of educational offerings it considers necessary, this Commission recommended that the number of community colleges be increased and that their activities be multiplied." The Truman Commission placed the two-year college in the category of higher education. This has been critical because it helped to guarantee that community colleges would come under the umbrella of the Higher Education Acts that played such a key role in shaping postsecondary education in the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, the report virtually ended the debate over whether the public two-year college was to be considered grades 13 and 14 of high school, or a part of higher education.

From their beginning until the 1940s, two-year colleges were most often labeled "junior colleges." Many were feeder institutions for four-year colleges and universities and were often branch campuses of those schools, providing freshman and sophomore courses either on the parent institution's campus or at a distant site. Others were supported by state funds and controlled by state boards; were district junior colleges, usually organized by a secondary school district; or were local colleges formed by private groups.

In 1922, the American Association of Junior Colleges (AAJC) defined the junior college as "An institution offering two years of instruction of strictly collegiate grade." In 1925, this definition was modified slightly to include the concept that, "The junior college may, and is likely to, develop a different type of curriculum suited to the larger and ever-changing civic, social, religious, and vocational needs of the entire community in which the college is located. It is understood that in this case, also, the work offered shall be on a level appropriate for high school graduates." But the AAJC also maintained its original declaration of "strictly collegiate grade" programs, and said that where the colleges featured courses usually offered in the first two years by senior institutions, "these courses must be identical, in scope and thoroughness, with corresponding courses of the standard four-year college." California, in fact, has required that courses in the community colleges be equivalent to and accepted by all state universities.

The proliferation of public community colleges during the 1950s and 1960s changed the complexion of higher education in America as well as the name applied to the institutions. The colleges more and more answered the needs of the communities in which they were located, broadening their curricula and clientele. The term "junior college" was more often applied to the lower-division branches of private universities and to two-year colleges supported by churches or organized independently, while "community college" came gradually to be used for comprehensive, publicly supported institutions. By the 1970s the term "community college" was usually applied to both types. Again, it was the 1947 Truman Commission Report that stressed the importance of community versus junior colleges. The commission suggested that "... the name 'community college' be applied to the institution designed to serve chiefly local community education needs ... (in the) community it serves." In 1998, there were 1,092 public and 184 private community colleges in the United States.

Expanding Roles:There is an occasional temptation to define the community college as any two-year institution that awards the associate of arts or science as its highest degree. However, this overlooks the many diverse functions of a true community college. Role and mission established by legislation in many states include academic transfer preparation, applied technology/occupational (vocational-technical) education, continuing education, and community service.

Academic transfer studies have been important features of community colleges from their beginnings. In addition to assisting four-year institutions by providing lower-division instruction, these academic transfer offerings proved highly successful in making higher education, as a whole, more accessible to greater numbers of people. By the late 1970s, two-thirds of all minority students and fully 40 percent of first-time, full-time college freshmen were enrolled in community colleges. Academic transfer offerings at community colleges also have had wide appeal for students in vocational/technical specialties, who might otherwise not have enrolled in traditional academic courses.

Vocational/technical education also was a part of two-year college plans in most states from the early 1900s. Called "career education," these programs taught skills not available in high schools. By the 1970s, the percentage of students in community college career education programs had equaled that in collegiate programs and continued to rise. With the inclusion of postsecondary occupational education at the college level, however, educators have been careful to point out that, "Skill training alone is not sufficient to qualify an institution for the appellation 'community college'; a general education component must be included in the occupational programs."

Continuing education, academic foundations education, and community service, unlike academic transfer and vocational/technical education have developed as community colleges have grown. Continuing education programs expanded rapidly, particularly after the 1940s. As more and more adults returned to college and the level of performance of high school graduates dropped, academic foundations education (also termed remedial, developmental, preparatory, or compensatory studies) grew rapidly, particularly in the 1970s. That coupled with the greater percentage of people entering college, made compensatory education mandatory to assure educational opportunity. Community service by community colleges was started by the colleges, particularly rural colleges, that also served as community cultural centers. In the 1980s, community colleges nationally have greatly expanded their role in providing job training, retraining and updating for employees of business and industry. This was in contrast to the development of Nebraska's community colleges, which served business and industry from its earliest days.

Whether for occupational training or a continuation of academic education, Nebraska's community colleges were established to meet local and state needs, not the requirements of traditional "higher" education, where there had long been an apprehension toward considerations of the needs of business as a factor in curricula development, according to Cohen and Brawer. Education, it was felt, had little to do with preparing people for the world of work; job training was perceived as the business of employers. That view, which persisted into this century at other than land-grant universities, ignored the real needs of business, especially small businesses, and students who wanted both a liberal arts education and training that would fully prepare them for the work world. This was especially true for those wanting to remain in agricultural or rural areas, where technical needs were very specific and access to higher education was usually very limited. In Nebraska, considerations of these needs took precedence. The development of the community college system in Nebraska based on this practical philosophy, which gave first priority to students' and communities' needs, now gives Nebraska an edge in serving business and industry through employee training, retraining and upgrading, a service which is rapidly evolving at community colleges around the country as a primary role along with vocational-technical, academic, continuing education, remedial programs, and community service as community colleges have grown.

However, the functions of community colleges overlap. Transfer, technical, and continuing education demand some of the same course work: one student's vocational-technical program requirement is another's continuing education. By 1980, a greater percentage of students who had completed community college vocational/technical training were transferring to four-year institutions than those who had completed designated collegiate programs. Thus, the multifaceted structure of the community college has allowed many students to combine its many aspects to meet their individual educational goals.

Continued Growth: It is not surprising that community colleges are the one group of institutions for whom substantial continuing enrollment growth was projected for the 1980s and 1990s. The development of community colleges outside of the traditions and strictures of either secondary or university models has allowed them to be more experimental and innovative in the development and delivery of instruction, for example, in service to business and industry with either on-campus or on-site training. Even though it was projected that the 18-year-old population would decline by roughly 25 percent between 1979 and 1992, community colleges have demonstrated an ability to offer programs that attract older, part-time students. Their projected growth is partially based on the continuation of this trend. Community colleges also have demonstrated a willingness and an ability to adapt rapidly to changing needs and circumstances, and most observers credit this flexibility as another factor that will help them survive, and even flourish, in the decade ahead, especially in service to business and industry.
 

AssociationBudgetStatutesDirectoryFundingHistorical InformationMapHome