How Has Community College Changed the Face of Education in the U.S.?

Updated May 18, 2018 |
How Has Community College Changed the Face of Education in the U.S.?
Community Colleges have existed for more than 100 years and they have changed significantly in that amount of time. Keep reading to learn more about the history of community colleges and how they've changed the face of American public education.

Years ago, attending college was a privilege that many people simply didn’t have. Though tuition rates were much more affordable back then, it was entirely possible to enter the workforce without a degree and to steadily rise through the ranks. Today, however, a college degree is a necessity for even entry-level positions, and even then it is difficult for recent graduates to find a job. Current tuition prices also leave students saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

There are currently over 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States and, collectively, they are known as the American higher-education system. Of those, there are nearly 1,500 community colleges and each year, more than one-third of undergraduate students choose public and private two-year colleges over traditional four-year colleges and universities.

As the number of community colleges and community college students continues to rise, the greater the effect they have on the American higher-education system. Keep reading to learn about the history of community colleges and how they have changed over the years – you’ll also learn how they have affected higher education in the United States.

Understanding the Importance of Higher Education

Before we get into the details of how community colleges have changed the face of the American higher-education system, let’s take a look at the importance of postsecondary education as a whole. Generally speaking, college graduates have more job opportunities available to them than students who choose not to pursue higher education after high school. Not only do college grads have more opportunities, but they also make more money. Here’s a quick breakdown of average earnings for students with different levels of education:

  • Partial High School – $10,996
  • High School Graduate – $21,569
  • Some College – $27,361
  • Associate’s Degree – $32,602
  • Bachelor’s Degree – $42,783
  • Master’s Degree – $53,716
  • Professional Degree – $79,977
  • Doctorate Degree – $73,575

Over a lifetime, statistics show that the average earnings of a full-time worker who works for 40 years are 65% higher for people who have some level of higher education versus high school graduates. Research also shows that graduates who complete a 4-year degree generally earn enough money by the time they reach 36 years of age to pay back their loans and to compensate for not working for an additional four years while in school.

In addition to the monetary benefits, there are also some practical benefits associated with finishing an postsecondary degree. For example, students have the opportunity to develop themselves personally during college in addition to improving their verbal and written communication skills. They learn independence and responsibility as well as a greater sense of discipline. Attending college enables you to explore your passions and to find a career path you truly enjoy plus, at the end of it all, you have a major sense of accomplishment.  

A Brief History of Community Colleges

Once known as junior colleges or two-year colleges, community colleges have existed in the United States since the Morrill Act of 1862 (the Land Grant Act) was passed. This act expanded access to public higher education which made it possible for students who had previously been denied access to traditional colleges and universities to attend school after high school. The second Morrill Act was released in 1890, and it prevented schools from denying access to minority students.

Though the Morrill Act laid the groundwork, the first community college (at the time labeled a junior college) wasn’t founded until 1901. The force behind this school’s creation was William Rainey Harper, president at the University of Chicago. Along with other leading university presidents, Harper headed up a movement toward focusing higher education instruction on research rather than teaching, suggesting that the first two years of postsecondary education should be more like an extension of high school – this is the type of model German high schools use. To test his ideas, Harper divided the University of Chicago into a junior college and a senior college in 1892.

Harper’s efforts were well-meaning, but they had little success until a colleague of his, J. Stanley Brown, began introducing college-level courses into his high-school curriculum in 1901 – thus the first public junior college was born in America. As the idea caught on, the number of junior colleges began to climb. By 1910, there were three junior colleges in America and, by 1914 there were 14 public junior colleges and another 32 private junior colleges.

Over the years, legislative changes improved funding for junior colleges which allowed them to expand their reach as well as their academic offerings. During the first part of the twentieth century, numerous political, social, and economic factors influenced the development of two-year colleges. The sentiment that a college education should be available to all prevailed and it became part of the mission for many community colleges to create a strong sense of belonging and cultural development in citizens local to the region in which the school was founded.

In 1920, the American Association of Junior Colleges (AAJC) was founded and it remains the national organization for community colleges in the United States today. During the 1920s, the association was faced with challenges such as arguments over vision, lack of respect from senior colleges and universities, and image recognition. In the 1930s, vocational education came to be included in community college curriculums and in the 1940s, veterans of World War II were offered financial assistance to pursue higher education.

All of these things and more contributed to a surge in enrollment that, by the 1960s, had community colleges growing more quickly than any other segment of American higher education. Enrollment skyrocketed from 1.6 million in the 1970s to more than 4.5 million in 1980. Today, there are more than 1,400 community colleges that enroll more than 10 million students each year. With community college students accounting for roughly 44% of all undergraduate students and 50% of incoming freshman, it is difficult to deny the impact community colleges have had (and will continue to have) on the American higher-education system. Keep reading to learn more about the role community colleges have played in the changing face of the American education system.

How Has Community College Changed American Education?

In 2015, President Obama revealed the “American College Promise” program which was designed to offer two years of free community college education to anyone willing to work for it. President Obama, along with others in the educational community, believed that community colleges played a central role in solving some of the biggest problems within the higher education system including tuition costs, inclusivity, community engagement, and career preparedness.

While the idea of free education is great, it is a goal that is difficult to achieve. Community colleges rely heavily on adjunct labor arrangements yet remain chronically underfunded. In some cases, schools have been forced to accept public funding as training centers simply to support their desired to ensure positive career outcomes for their students. Though there are still problems with student debt and a waning interest in undergraduate subjects with limited financial payouts, community colleges still offer unique benefits such as diversity and affordability.

Community colleges were originally developed as a near-extension of high school. The development of junior colleges made it possible for elitist schools to remain focused on research – it also enabled them to be more selective about the students they admitted. Over time, community college became an affordable option where a student could complete an associate’s degree in two years. In more recent years, community colleges have taken on another role – they have begun to offer career training through vocationally oriented courses designed to help students earn a certificate.

These changes have made community colleges more important now than ever before, especially when it comes to serving the needs of local businesses and communities – they are also particularly important in rural areas where career training is hard to find. Since they began offering vocational training, community colleges have seen huge surges in enrollment. Other changes within the system have turned community colleges from an extension of high school or a gateway to a bachelor’s degree into a highly valuable source of academic instruction and a significant provider of vocational preparation.

Not only are community colleges changing the face of the American higher-education system, but they are changing their local communities as well. Workplace training programs not only prepare students for occupational licensure, but these programs also attract new employers to the area while retaining existing employers in the industry. In this way, community college programs play a role in supporting local economic development. An example comes from Birmingham, Alabama where Lawson State Community College forged an alliance with both Novell Incorporated and Microsoft Corporation to offer information technology certificates that were accredited by the Association of Collegiate Business Schools and Programs.

Another way in which community colleges have changed American public education is in their offerings for short-term certificates. While traditional four-year colleges and universities are focused on graduating students with a bachelor’s degree, community colleges make it possible for students to obtain a new certificate or to simply take classes that would further their career. Generally speaking, certificates take less than one year to complete, and the number of certificates awarded by community colleges rose from 46,447 in 1989 to nearly 86,000 in 1999 – that’s an increase of 85%.

In addition to offering unique educational opportunities for traditional and non-traditional students, many community colleges offer greater diversity than traditional school. Whereas traditional colleges and universities have minimum requirements for SAT scores, GPA, and other factors, community colleges offer open admission and affordable tuition which provides educational opportunities for local students who might not otherwise have access to higher education – this includes minorities and the number of minority students attending community college continues to climb. To illustrate this, consider that roughly 20% of community college enrollments were made up of minorities in 1976. By 1999, minority enrollment had increased to 33%.

Outside of all of these benefits, community colleges also have the unique ability to adapt to change. For example, many community colleges have begun to offer computer technology programs (and basic training for core curricula) because it has become obvious that technical skills are a must-have for nearly any career path. In this way, community colleges have come to provide focused education designed to improve both practical skills and knowledge – they do not enforce arbitrary classes on students outside of their career path. In doing so, community colleges have become an excellent option for students looking for an affordable, practical, and applicable form of higher education.

What Does the Future Hold for Community Colleges?

While community colleges provide educational opportunities for non-traditional students and for students looking for a more affordable option, many schools have low completion rates among other problems. In recent years, however, many community colleges have been tweaking their missions to make graduation a priority.

Melinda Mechur Karp, the assistant director of the Community College Research Center, says, “There’s been a realization that if we really want to increase completion numbers, then we need to rethink how community colleges are organized and how reforms are done.” She goes on to say that the entirety of the community college student’s experience needs to be restructured along with the curriculum and student support services.

One way community colleges have begun to restructure themselves is by reducing the number of options rather than adding to them. Karp says that having too many choices can be counterproductive – the old one-size-fits-all approach to community college no longer works. A system in which students are allowed to pick and choose from a wide spectrum of subjects is giving way to a more focused and guided approach to community college education.

Noah Brown, president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT), says that this is the biggest development in the world of community college since the Truman Commission Report released in 1947. This report paved the way for the development of the community college system you know today. The new goal, however, is to structure community college education in a way that not only improves student retention through graduation but also helps them finish their associate’s degree quickly – within 2 to 3 years.

So, what changes are community colleges making to reach these new goals?

Here are a few changes being made at Guttman Community College in New York City which may be beneficial for schools everywhere:

  • Incoming students are encouraged to visit the campus at least twice during the process of admissions.
  • Students are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the school’s philosophy and expectations.
  • New students are required to complete a two-week summer bridge program to prepare them for higher education.
  • First-year students are required to maintain full-time student status.
  • New students must complete a core curriculum designed around topics and experiences relevant to the lives of most students (ex: New York City natives).
  • All students receive mandatory academic advising and must complete an “Ethnographies of Work” course to learn how to choose a major and a career.

In 2012, Guttman’s inaugural year, nearly 50% of students graduated within three years – that is significantly higher than the national average of just 20%. Furthermore, the number of students who go on to complete baccalaureate programs or start a career is on the rise. Guttman is a great example of how community colleges are evolving to adapt to a changing world of higher education and the efforts made at this school are being mimicked by many other schools under the guidance of the Pathways Project founded by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

By now you know full well that community colleges have changed the face of the American higher education system and vice versa. Not only is community college education changing, but public perception of it seems to be improving as well. Two decades ago, there was a common perception that community colleges were only for students who couldn’t handle a traditional four-year school. In recent years, however, more students are realizing the benefits of attending community college and it is becoming an increasingly well-respected decision.

The face of American education is constantly changing and only time will tell what role community colleges will play in that change. If you’re considering community college, put in the time and effort to choose the right school and then take advantage of every opportunity available to you so you graduate fully prepared for the life ahead of you.


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