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 Community Colleges Past to Present 

It is a very exciting time for community colleges as they celebrate their centennial. In 100 years time, community colleges have grown tremendously in numbers and have changed with the times. No other segment of higher education is more responsive to its community and workforce needs than the community college.

Founded in 1901, Joliet Junior College in Illinois is the oldest existing public two-year college.  In the early years, the colleges focused on general liberal arts studies. During the Depression of the 1930s, community colleges began offering job-training programs as a way of easing widespread unemployment. After World War II, the conversion of military industries to consumer goods created new, skilled jobs. This economic transformation along with the GI Bill created the drive for more higher education options. In 1948, the Truman Commission suggested the creation of a network of public, community-based colleges to serve local needs.

Community colleges became a national network in the 1960s with the opening of 457 public community colleges - more than the total in existence before that decade. Baby boomers coming of age fueled enrollment growth. The construction involved in this gigantic growth of facilities was funded by a robust economy and supported by the social activism of the time. The number of community colleges has steadily grown since the 1960s. At present, there are 1,166 community colleges in the United States. When the branch campuses of community colleges are included, the number totals about 1,600. [PDF]

Today, community colleges educate more than half the nation's undergraduates. In the 1996-97 academic year, 9.3 million people took credit courses at community colleges. Another 5 million took noncredit classes, the majority of which were workforce training courses. Since 1901, at least 100 million people have attended community colleges.

Each community college is a distinct educational institution, loosely linked to other community colleges by the shared goals of access and service. Open admissions and the tradition of charging low tuition are among the practices they have in common. But each community college has it own mission

As such community colleges offer a great deal more than credit and noncredit classes. In 1988, with society becoming increasingly fragmented, the Commission on the Future of Community Colleges recommended that community colleges help build a sense of community by creating partnerships and making facilities available to civic groups. Additionally, community colleges have embraced the opportunity to provide remedial education: basic computation, composition and reading classes to help students meet their ultimate goals.

In the 20th century, community colleges have not only survived, they have thrived by demonstrating remarkable resiliency and becoming centers of educational opportunity open to all seekers. They pride themselves on providing educational marketplaces where student choices and community needs influence course offerings. Now we mark a century in which community colleges have helped millions of people learn and advance toward personal goals, while providing a forum to address challenges facing whole communities.

Based on material from National Profile of Community Colleges: Trends & Statistics, Phillippe & Patton, 2000.

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