Community or Junior Colleges

Community and junior colleges are unique to American education, and no form of higher education is more varied than these institutions, all of which must comply with the same array of laws as other postsecondary educational institutions whether dealing with students, faculty, or staff. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, nearly 1,200 two-year colleges serve an average of 11.5 million students annually. Their benefits are enormous: Each year, community colleges award some 555,000 associate degrees and 295,000 certificates; 59% of new nurses and the majority of other new health care workers are educated at community colleges; close to 80% of firefighters, law enforcement officers, and EMTs are credentialed at community colleges; 95% of businesses and organizations that employ community college graduates recommend community college workforce education and training programs. The most democratic of American higher education institutions because of their open-door admission policies, community colleges include 987 public, 177 independent, and 31 tribal colleges. This entry reviews the history of these institutions, describes their contemporary status, and notes some controversies about their role in U.S. education today. 

History

For more than a century, two-year colleges have been part of the American higher education landscape. J. Stanley Brown, superintendent of Joliet Township High School, and William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago, urged the creation of the first two-year junior college in 1901, arguing that a separate and discrete junior college providing the first two years of collegiate education or vocational training might attract students who otherwise would not continue their education beyond high school and further might induce some students to terminate their collegiate tenure after two years of study to enter the workforce. These educators theorized that this approach might also appeal to graduate and professional schools, because the student body from which they could then recruit would be more select. Brown and Harper’s vision took hold in America, and over the ensuing decades, two-year colleges began to proliferate around the nation. 

In the years following World War II, more twoyear institutions were established when Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, or G. I. Bill, to support returning veterans who required retraining to prepare for civilian jobs. The massive influx of nontraditional students entering the higher education system as a result of this legislation required a substantive expansion of the system, thus stimulating the need for additional community colleges. According to Frederick Rudolph, the implementation of the G. I. Bill in the postwar United States demonstrated the relationship between education and employment and thus helped to generate support for the junior college not only as an institution providing general education but also as a source of vocational training. 

In 1947, a study by the President’s Commission on Higher Education (the Truman Commission) suggested that half of the country’s young people could benefit from formal education through Grade 14 and further popularized the term “community college,” a new title developed due to the expanded role of the institution. The 1960s witnessed the most significant expansion of two-year colleges, as the notion of accessible higher education for all who aspired to pursue it took root across the nation. During the decade enrollments skyrocketed with participation by baby boomers, and 457 two-year colleges were created at an astounding average of one new college per week. A series of grants through the Kellogg Junior College Leadership Programs helped train many community college leaders during this decade. Growth continued during the 1970s, when many young men enrolled to escape the Vietnam-era draft. The 1970s also marked a shift to faculty development that focused on more instructional training for the unique student body and mission of community colleges. During the 1980s, community colleges began to work more closely with high schools to prepare students for vocational and technical two-year programs. 

The Community College Today

Today’s two-year colleges share a philosophy and commitment to serving all segments of society through open admission, low cost, and extra academic and personal support. They are generally commuter colleges located within 35 miles (the national average) of their respective student populations. The implementation of the two-year college’s focus on ensuring access to and opportunity for higher education services varies by institution, but the basic elements include academic transfer in preparation for subsequent transition to baccalaureate institutions (formerly provided exclusively by two-year institutions known as “junior colleges”), career and technical education (formerly provided exclusively by two-year institutions formerly known as “technical schools,” “technical colleges,” or “vocational technical institutes”), developmental or remedial education for students without the academic preparation necessary to be successful at the college level (formerly the exclusive domain of the K–12 education system), noncredit training of incumbent workers (“customized training”), and noncredit personal enrichment classes (“lifelong learning”). Two-year colleges that offer all of these elements are commonly known as “comprehensive community colleges” or “consolidated colleges.” Community-based two-year colleges are designed to focus on meeting the academic, workforcedevelopment, lifelong learning, and other education needs of the local region or district; accordingly, their mix of programs may vary enormously. 

Frequently known as “second-chance colleges,” community colleges provide utility that other levels of education cannot or will not. For example, the democratic open-door admissions policy of community colleges allows students who did not fare well in high school to enter postsecondary education; community colleges admit students without high school diplomas or GED certificates. Such students, without appropriate academic preparation, frequently cannot enter more selective “meritocratic” or “aristocratic” four-year colleges and universities. Community colleges help traditionally underserved students without adequate academic preparation, including inadequate English-language skills, through extensive personalized academic and student-support services. Where four-year colleges and universities serve the traditional 18- to 22-year-old student, the average age of community college students is 29; 60% are female, and 35% are ethnic or racial minorities. As a reflection of the significant contribution that they make to American life, as many as 39% of students who are enrolled in community colleges are the first members of their families to attend postsecondary educational institutions. Research on students transferring from community colleges to universities consistently shows that such students typically fare as well academically as their counterparts who began their postsecondary education at the more selective university. 

The soaring popularity of community colleges (46% of all undergraduates in the United States and growing) is in part a product of their accessibility and affordability. Most community colleges serve commuter populations that live within 35 miles of campus; only a few (24%) provide student housing, because students can reduce costs by staying at and commuting from their family’s home. The average cost of tuition at a public two-year college ($2,361) is only 38% of tuition at a public four-year college or university ($6,185). 

Debate over the role and value of community colleges has emerged in recent years. Advocates argue that community colleges serve the needs of society by offering postsecondary opportunities to students who otherwise could not go to college, by training and retraining mid-level skilled workers, and by preserving the academic excellence of four-year colleges and universities. In contrast, critics argue that community colleges continue a culture of privilege through training business workers at public expense, restricting workingclass learners from advancing in social class, protecting selective admissions at four-year institutions for the nation’s elite, and discouraging transfer to four-year colleges and universities. Whether community colleges offer opportunities for social mobility or protect privilege, their century-long history has developed a distinctive aspect of higher education that is truly American. 

Terrence Leas

See also Higher Education Act

Further Readings

  • American Association of Community Colleges: http://www.aacc.nche.edu/Pages/default.aspx 
  • Brint, S., & Karabel, J. (1989). The diverted dream: Community colleges & the promise of educational opportunity in America, 1900–1985. New York: Oxford University Press. 
  • Brubacher, J. S., & Rudy, W. (1976). Higher education in transition: A history of American colleges and universities, 1636–1976 (3rd ed.). New York: Harper & Row. 
  • Cohen, A. M., & Brawer, F. B. (2003). The American community college (4th ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 
  • Dougherty, K. J. (1994). The contradictory college: The conflicting origins, impacts, and futures of the community college. Albany: State University of New York Press. 
  • Kaplin, W. A., & Lee, B. A. (2006). The law of higher education: A comprehensive guide to legal implications of administrative decision making. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 
  • Melear, K. B., & Leas, T. (2006). Community college governance: A compendium of state organizational structures. Asheville, NC: College Administration Publications. 
  • President’s Commission on Higher Education. (1947). A report of the President’s Commission on Higher Education (6 vols.). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. 
  • Rudolph, F. (1977). Curriculum: A history of the American undergraduate curriculum since 1636. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 
  • University of Texas at Austin. (2009, May 31). U S. community colleges [alphabetical list]. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from http://www.utexas.edu/world/comcol/alpha 

Legal Citations

  • Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (G. I. Bill), Pub. L. No. 78-346 (1944).