American community
colleges, originally labeled junior colleges or two-year colleges, are one of
the most influential additions to American higher education to date (Drury, 2003). These
institutions have been around for over a century and have consistently molded
to the educational needs of our society. The American community college is
unique in its purpose by delivering educational services and programs to those
who would not be eligible to enroll in a college or university (Ratcliff, 2017). Now, two year colleges enroll nearly half of the
undergraduate population in the U.S. and provide a transfer curriculum,
vocational curriculum, and serve their respective communities (National
Conference of State Legislatures, 2014).

The early history of
community colleges began with the Morrill Act of 1862 and the second Morrill
Act of 1890, which increased access to public higher education and amplified
the need for more higher education institutions to help serve the masses (Drury, 2003). When
evaluating the structure of post-secondary education, higher
education leaders acknowledged the first two years of college were not
reflective of the university-level, research education (Drury, 2003). Several
university presidents at the time, including William Rainey Harper, president of
the University of Chicago, began to push for the idea of a junior-level college
(Drury,
2003). These educational leaders began to consider first and
second years of college similar in terms of student development and basic curriculum.
This idea led higher education
leaders to create a model similar to the German University, which featured the
first two years of postsecondary education as an extension of high school curriculum (Drury, 2003). In 1892, William Rainey
Harper separated
the University of Chicago into a junior college and a senior college, introducing
the associate’s degree for students completing junior division coursework (Drury, 2003). This movement to a junior and senior
college created an elitist model allowing junior colleges to focus on teaching
and senior colleges to focus on research; eliminating all but the academically
advanced to enter the senior-level division (Drury, 2003). The first junior college
in America, Joliet Junior College, was founded in 1901 by the help of Harper, with
a purpose to provide a post-graduate high school program to enhance the skills
of students who successfully completed high school but would not attend a
university (Swanger, 2013).
After Joliet Junior College was founded, growth of junior colleges was slow
during the beginning of the twentieth century, but that was soon to change (Drury, 2003).

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By 1914, 14 public junior colleges and 32
private junior colleges existed to train individuals to fill the gaps of the
nation’s quickly growing industrial needs (Drury, 2003). After World War I, society deemed more
education to be a means of upward mobility which would benefit society as a
whole (Drury, 2003). The
early years of community college education focused on college prep and liberal
arts curriculum that could be transferred to universities, with minimal
attention given to occupational or vocational training (Drury, 2003). Higher education
professional associations began to form to assist in the development of post-secondary
education. The American Association of Junior Colleges (AAJC), now known as the
American Association of Community Colleges, was founded in 1920 when junior
colleges faced evolutional issues of image recognition, lack of respect from senior
level colleges and universities, and vision discrepancies among members (Drury, 2003). During this
time, the educational demands and
student demographics changed and expanded due to more women taking advantage of
higher education and the growing number of immigrants coming to the U.S. in the
early 1900s (Ratcliff, 2017).

Enrollment in community colleges began to
rise rapidly after the Great Depression, with enrollment more than doubling
from 56,000 students to 150,000 students from 1929-1939 (Drury, 2003). Once more, legislation such
as the GI Bill of Rights and the Truman Commission assisted in making education
more accessible to Americans to serve the masses and help break down the social
and financial barriers associated with higher education (Drury, 2003). Baby boomers increased
enrollment in the 1960s with two-year colleges expanding at the rate of one new
college per week, and serving more than 4.5 million by the 1980s (Drury, 2003). Community
colleges began focusing on specialized training and vocational programs in
order to create a niche to better compete against the four-year institutions (Drury, 2003).

Community
colleges today offer admission to any student who completes a secondary
education as well as assist adults wishing to complete their secondary
education (Ratcliff, 2017). The
term “community” attracts students not only because of geographical
location but also the inclusive environment for learning it provides (Drury, 2003; Ratcliff, 2017).
With over 50 percent of community colleges in the U.S. being rural, they are
often the only option for higher education in some regions (Swanger, 2013). As the workhorses
of higher education, community colleges assist students academically by providing
developmental courses, prepare students to transfer to four-year institutions, and
providing specialized workforce and jobs skills training (National Conference of State
Legislatures, 2014). They also serve a unique population of
nontraditional students including single parent, low-income, minority,
part-time, first generation, and adult (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2014).
Since two-year colleges are the most accessible forms of higher education in
some regions and are focused on the local community, they play a larger role in
community and economic development (Swanger, 2013). While the purpose and structure of community
colleges is stable, significant challenges are still to be faced such as lack
of resources due to serving so many individuals and less than 50 percent of
students being successful in earning a credential or transferring to a
university (National Conference of State
Legislatures, 2014; Swanger,
2013).

Concerning the future of community
colleges, one suggestion for these institutions in the years to come are reevaluating
the curriculum and incorporating positive changes toward the comprehensive
mission of these institutions (Travis,
1995). As the community college curriculum has evolved, curriculum changes
in terms of transfer curriculum and vocational curriculum have occurred. Today,
programs need to focus on the learning styles of their learners as well as
address institutional barriers regarding accessibility to the curriculum, such
as inconvenient schedule of courses, constricting locations, and rigid fee
structures relative to the unique populations they serve (Travis, 1995).

The community college today offers an
array of programs including vocational, technical, and pre-professional
certificates, and two-year associate degrees in general and liberal education as
well as emphasis on transfer curriculum, and a focus in a community service role
(Ratcliff, 2017; Travis, 1995).
Now, over 1,100 community colleges in America exist, enrolling over 13 million
students each year (National
Conference of State Legislatures, 2014). Community colleges serve
approximately 44% of the nation’s undergraduate population and 50% of incoming
fist year students (Drury,
2003). Due
to most community colleges offering an open enrollment policy, this provides
accessibility to a greater number of students with minority students making up nearly
47% (Drury, 2003). Over 80 percent of community college students
work while attending college with 60 percent of students working more than 20
hours a week (National
Conference of State Legislatures, 2014). In 2011, community colleges granted
over 730,000 associate degrees and almost 430,000 certificates. In hopes that
many, not just a few, individuals can live out their American Dream, these
institutions will maintain their missions to provide access to higher education
to all (Drury, 2003).

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