Significant Events in the Community College Movement

by Michelle Grimes Hillman and Janet Lehr


Junior colleges are for students who "cannot, will not, should not become university students."  

Thus spoke one of the educational leaders who established the junior college movement 100 years ago [i].  Community colleges have obviously gone through a significant evolution since the founding of the first junior college in Joliet, Illinois in 1901.  A review of that history can provide you with many insights into the changing roles of the community colleges and the many important contributions that the system has made to American society.

Joliet College Centennial: 1901-2001A total of six students enrolled in the first class at Joliet J.C., which was modeled after the first two years of a four-year college. The initial goal of the college was to accommodate students who desired to remain within the community and still pursue a college education. The tuition-free college started as part of the local high school system and was accredited by the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges in 1917.

The junior college movement spread quickly beyond Illinois as the demand for higher education and occupational training incessantly increased .  During the next 100 years, junior colleges modified their functions to meet the needs of a growing and increasingly complex society. This evolution, according to a study by Deegan and Tillery, can be viewed in terms of the Five Generations  [ii]:

Generation 1: Extension of High School (1900-1930)

The two-year college largely evolved by adding grades 13 and 14 to high schools. This legacy can still be seen today in many states, including California, that still have laws grouping community colleges with high schools and not with the other systems of higher education.

Around 1920, the American Association of Junior Colleges proposed a variation on the role of junior colleges, providing a path away from baccalaureate degrees and toward vocational training.

Generation 2: Rise of Independent Junior Colleges (1930-50)

This generation is characterized in terms of breaking away from the high school. As late as 1944, approximately two-thirds of all public junior colleges still had some degree of connection with the high school. As a result, there was heavy control by local school boards (e.g. mandating textbooks, supervision of faculty). There was slow growth in the public sector during this period: 259 colleges in 1930 and only 299 in 1950. Increasingly, junior colleges started emphasizing general education, student services, and vocational education during this period.

Generation 3: Evolution to Community Colleges (1950-1970)

Due to the Truman Report, the term "community college" became popularized. Many states developed systems of community colleges during this period. The number of institutions grew tremendously. Almost one a week was being built in the mid-1960s. This period also saw the beginning of the truly open door policy in which students were admitted to the college regardless of previous academic records.

Generation 4: Emergence of the Comprehensive Community College (1970- mid-1980's)

During this period, "Something for Everyone" became the institution’s motto. An emphasis on community service and noncredit programs developed, as did non-traditional delivery. The curriculum became dominated by occupational-technical programs (in terms of enrollment).

Generation 5: The Contemporary Community College (mid-1980's to present)

During this period, six major trends emerged, with implications that influenced institutional planning, management, education, policies and practices, and legislation. 

  1. The increased need for recurring adult education required community colleges to offer cost-effective programs which fell within their mission and learner outcomes. 
  2. More pronounced demographics, economics, and occupational characteristics caused community colleges to offer programs that fit their local communities. 
  3. Due to new information and learning technologies which changed why, how, and where people learned, community colleges needed to redesign curricula and methods of instruction. In addition, faculty training in new technologies and instruction became essential. 
  4. Increased competition for both public and private resources demanded greater public accountability as a result of good institutional planning, efficient management, and clear evidence of achieving college objectives.
  5. State appropriations for maintaining infrastructure of colleges became based on evidence of efficient management of public accountability. 
  6. The growing need for greater staff development and employment practices that would bring special talent to the community colleges. 


Dig Deeper Significant historical events in the development of the public community college

Dig Deeper Mission of the California Comminity Colleges
Dig Deeper History of the California Community Colleges

[i] Lange, Alexis F., The Junior College, Sierra Educational News Oct. 1920: 483-486

[ii] Deegan, W., and Tillery, D., & Associates. Renewing the American Community College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass,1985.