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History and Background: Community Colleges

They’ve been known as community colleges, junior colleges, technical colleges, two-year colleges, or city colleges. Some are dropping any modifier and just naming themselves colleges.

Whatever the top of the letterhead says, the concept of a community college has been around for more than 120 years, dating back to at least 1901 and Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Illinois. It was founded originally as a way to allow students who couldn’t afford to leave the community and go to a pricey four-year school a way to get some post-high school training, often mirroring the first couple years of a four-year school. There wasn’t a huge demand for them right away. In 1914, there were 14 public and 32 private junior colleges. 

A few of those early colleges offered vocational classes, but most offered liberal arts courses. Many were founded by religious denominations to offer training in specific communities.

By the 1920s, a push had begun to offer vocational training, part of the overall societal switch from farming to industry.

The big jump came during the Great Depression, when enrollment tripled. In the 1930s, more community colleges began vocational programs, just in time for veterans coming home from World War II with free college awaiting, thanks to the G.I. Bill. 

The biggest boom happened in the 1960s, with about one new college per week opening up shop to accommodate the Baby Boom generation. In the 1970s, community colleges grew from about 1.6 million students to more than 4.5 million by 1980, although the number of students attending community colleges as part of a plan to transfer to a four-year institution plummeted. 

The 1990s also were a decade of growth. Enrollment at public community colleges jumped 14 percent between 1989 and 1999.

As demand grew, the schools themselves evolved, and, in many cases, changed their names. “Junior college” is often now usually used to characterize private two-year institutions, while “community college” often signifies public two-year institutions. However, there is no strict definition of each term. By the 2020s, many had dropped any signifer other than college, to reflect more four-year degrees being offered at the schools.

Updated June 2021.