This article provides an overview of community colleges in the United States. Community colleges largely originated from private two-year colleges (Diener, 1986). Community colleges have expanded access to higher education for previously underserved segments of the American population, such as nontraditional students (Boggs, 2004; Cohen & Brawer, 2003; Gleazer, 1980; Spellman, 2007; Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, & Suárez-Orozco, 2011). Community colleges fulfill many curricular functions, including preparation for transfer to four-year institutions, vocational training, continuing education, developmental or remedial education, and community service (Cohen & Brawer, 2003; Witt et al., 1994).
Keywords Access; Baby Boomers; Community College; Dual Enrollment; First Generation Students; First-Time College Freshmen; Junior College; Nontraditional Students; Open Door College; Remedial Education; Service-Learning; Student Engagement; Vocational Education
Higher Education: Community College Education
Importance of Community Colleges
Gleazer (1980) writes that "Community colleges and their progenitors, public junior colleges, were established to extend educational opportunity" (p. 7). Because of their role in expanding access to higher education for a diverse population of students, community colleges are often referred to as "people's colleges" or "democracy's colleges" (Boggs, 2004). Cohen and Brawer (2003) noted that "community colleges have led to notable changes in American education, especially by expanding access" (p. 26). Diener (1986) aptly summarized some of the changes as follows:
The community college and its faculty serve the widest range of student ages, abilities, and interests of any institution in American higher education. It represents the American-built opportunity for a greater variety of individuals to develop and cultivate their talents and skills more fully than any other educational institution (Diener, 1986, p. 16).
Historical Development of Community Colleges
The Junior College
The modern American community college has its roots in the junior college (Diener, 1986). Junior colleges were largely private two-year colleges that had a main mission of providing the first two years of general collegiate study (Diener, 1986). Thus, they essentially fulfilled a transfer function and were a stepping stone along the way to a four-year liberal arts degree. At the same time, they retained vestiges of the elitism of the English model of higher education after which the earlier American colleges were modeled (Diener, 1986). Researchers have asserted that junior colleges were extensions of the elite system of higher education, though only in the sense that the colleges were created to please "university elitists" and preserve those institutions by providing some advanced educational training to a growing population of high school graduates (Witt, Wattenbarger, Gollattscheck, & Suppiger, 1994).
While some scholars have argued that comprehensive community colleges are quite different from the junior colleges from which they evolved, others have insisted that the two types of institutions are actually not that different. For instance, Witt et al. (1994) stated that the "supposed dichotomy is not supported by fact" (p. 39). For instance, the authors indicated that from the beginning junior colleges also supported a terminal function where students could leave with an earned associate's degree. They also noted that practical courses in agriculture were taught at the first junior college in California (Witt et al., 1994). However, the authors also later indicated that even up to the 1920s "the most popular junior college curriculum was clearly university transfer" (Witt et al., 1994, p. 45). Moreover, nearly half of all junior colleges at that time offered no terminal degree option (Witt et al., 1994).
The junior college movement is believed to have originated at the University of Chicago in the 1890s, where university president William Rainey Harper divided the upper and lower divisions of the university and named the lower-division departments junior colleges (Witt et al., 1994). According to Witt et al. (1994), "Harper founded the greatest democratic movement in the history of American higher education" (p. 16). At first the junior college movement was concentrated in the Midwest (Witt et al., 1994). Then in the early twentieth century the movement spread to California. California was more amenable to the spread of the movement than, for instance, the eastern states, which already had a rich system of smaller four-year colleges (Witt et al., 1994). At that time most Californians did not have access to any form of higher education (Witt et al., 1994).
Expansion to Community Colleges
As junior colleges grew and developed—and became more an institution of the people—they transformed into community colleges. Diener (1986) explains,
The junior college, at first a copy of a portion of the elitist university, began to widen its course offerings. It expanded its types of students served. The inclusion of vocational programs and daughters as well as sons of blue-collar workers began the transformation of the junior college to the community college (Diener, 1986, p. 12).
The transition from mostly private junior colleges to mainly public community colleges progressed over time. In 1915-16 just 26 percent of all junior (two-year) colleges were public while the majority (74 percent) was private. By the late 1960s this statistic had reversed (Cohen & Brawer, 2003).
The time that had the greatest impact on the transformation of the junior college to the community college was the era after World War II that was witness to the GI Bill of Rights, the Civil Rights Movement, and the era of the baby boomers (Diener, 1986; Witt et al., 1994). It was during this time that the call was made to ensure access to some form of education for a greater number of the American people. The community college became America's "open door college," where veterans, women, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, the poor, the disadvantaged, and those seeking additional or advanced vocational training could all pursue greater educational opportunity (Diener, 1986). The GI Bill, which provided a free college education to military veterans, became law in 1944 (Witt et al., 1994). By 1946 more than 40 percent of all students at junior colleges were war veterans. Overall, enrollments nearly doubled in just three years, growing from 251,290 in 1944 to half a million during the 1947 academic year (Witt et al., 1994). According to Witt et al. (1944), by the 1950s the colleges had experienced seven decades of almost continuous growth. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also paved the way for increased enrollment of blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities at higher education institutions (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997). However, the biggest expansion yet was to come when the baby boomers descended on the community colleges in the 1960s and brought with them "the greatest period of growth in community college history" (Witt et al., 1994, p. 162). Witt et al. (1944) indicate that during the 1960s what equated to one community or junior college a week was built in the United States to accommodate the unprecedented growth. Enrollments nearly quadrupled, coming to a total of nearly 2.5 million students at the end of the decade (Witt et al., 1994). Community colleges also moved into urban centers and came to exist in every state during the 1960s (AACC, 2001; Cohen & Brawer, 2003). As Gleazer (1980) explains, "For those who could not leave the community to go to college there was one within commuting distance" (p. 7).
While there is no clear indication of by whom or when the name "community college" was first mentioned, an article by Byron S. Hollinshead in 1936 urged the junior college to be more responsive to its community and become “a community college, meeting community needs” (Witt et al., 1994, p. 107). However, the 1947 Truman Commission report helped cement the new name into history (Witt et al., 1994). The Truman Commission was a federal commission appointed by U.S. president Harry S. Truman and was charged with developing a master plan to expand educational opportunities for the American citizenry (Witt et al., 1994). Following its work, the Truman Commission recommended the development of new two-year colleges and recommended these colleges be called community colleges (Witt et al., 1994).
Gleazer (1980) explains, "Historically, the community college was based on the assumption that there were large numbers of people not served by existing institutions and the unserved were to be the clientele of these new colleges" (p. 7). One general segment of the clientele was to be the average citizen. Witt et al. (1994) indicated that the colleges would be responsive and help meet the needs of average citizens in a fluctuating world. The colleges would also help to educate adults and offer "a practical solution to the problem of adults needing affordable postsecondary education close to home" (AACC, 2001, p. 103). It has been said that community colleges' success is rooted in their values of community responsiveness and access as well as creativity and a focus on student learning (AACC, 2001).
In terms of community colleges' highly held value of access, Cohen and Brawer (2003) stressed that "more than any other single factor, access depends on proximity" (p. 16). Community colleges have opened the doors of higher education to more individuals not just because of their open access policies but also because they are local, neighborhood institutions that have physically put higher education in the reach of people who otherwise would not have had proximity to it. Boggs (2004) explained that community colleges have "become the largest sector of higher education, representing nearly 1,200 regionally accredited institutions within commuting distance of over 90 percent of the population" (¶ 1). Community colleges also facilitate access because of the lower tuitions that they charge (Bailey...
(The entire section is 4479 words.)