Skip to Main Content

A Brief Community College Origin Story

Community College Insights
December 14, 2023

Community College Origins

In the United States. two-year higher education institutions were initially formulated as junior colleges, where students would complete the first two years of a four-year degree. The first junior college was created at the University of Chicago, where in 1896, the university's president, William Harper, separated the university into two institutions: a junior college for students to attain an associate degree, and the university for third- and fourth-year students to attain a bachelor's degree. Harper felt that higher education should function more like Germany, with junior colleges as a two-year extension of high school. In this model, students would begin at junior colleges, and entry-level courses would be taught similarly to high school. After two years, students could earn an associate degree and potentially continue at a university for two very rigorous years of coursework to attain a bachelor's degree. After instituting this model at the University of Chicago, Harper tried to push this concept more broadly — with some success. By 1914, there were 12 public junior colleges and 32 private junior colleges in the United States.

These junior colleges were not generally designed for workforce development. Instead, they were created to ensure that only the best and brightest made it to the bachelor's degree-issuing universities. Researchers Steven Brint and Jerome Karabel emphasize this in The Diverted Dream, their 1989 book on the history of community colleges:

"... the growth of the two-year institution had little to do with the democratization of higher education. On the contrary, the diffusion of the junior college was primarily a means of diverting students away from the university into an upward extension of high school. Thus, protected from the clamoring for access, the university would be free to pursue its higher tasks of research and advanced professional training." (p. 25)

While there were junior colleges that offered technical education, most offered liberal arts courses that would transfer to universities for bachelor's degrees.

The Formalization of Junior Colleges

In 1920, the American Association of Junior Colleges (AAJC) was founded when the U.S. commissioner of education gathered a group of 34 junior college leaders in St. Louis, Missouri. The organization provided more thought leadership around the role of junior colleges in the United States. As the Great Depression began, junior college enrollment surged across the country, with the student population nearly tripling between 1929 and 1939. During this time, there was also a movement toward teaching vocational skills at junior colleges, in response to widespread unemployment and the desire of unemployed individuals to gain employable skills. The AAJC conceptualized a two-path model, with junior colleges providing both a transfer path to universities along with a terminal path for technical vocations. As a result, the Danville Textile School opened in Danville, Virginia, in 1936, which specialized in training workers specifically for the textile industry.

In 1944, Congress passed the Serviceman's Readjustment Act, now known as the GI Bill, to offer World War II veterans with financial resources for housing, higher education, and unemployment insurance. Between 1945 and 1956, about half of all World War II veterans had used benefits offered in the bill to pursue training at higher education institutions. This included 3.5 million veterans who sought technical or vocational postsecondary education and 700,000 veterans who studied agriculture. The surge in enrollment driven by GI Bill recipients prompted major shifts in the sorts of programs offered at colleges and universities across the country, including at junior colleges, with increased emphasis on academic programs directly related to workforce preparation.

The Transition From Junior Colleges to Community Colleges

The term "community college" was not used widely until the late 1940s, after the GI Bill enrollment surge began. In 1947, President Harry Truman commissioned a higher education report that called for the establishment of public community colleges across the country that would charge low tuition, provide a comprehensive curriculum, and serve a specific geographic area. The purpose was to expand higher education and to provide a postsecondary study path for all Americans. The report also recommended naming these institutions community colleges to reflect their connectedness and responsiveness to the communities where they were located.

The 1950s and 1960s represented one of the largest growth periods for community colleges in the United States, with many community colleges opened across the country. The already burgeoning enrollment boom was accelerated by the passage of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which among other things, created the Pell Grant and the federal loan program.

During the same period, many junior colleges, many which were private, were converted to four-year institutions. For example, Mars Hill College in North Carolina transitioned from a private two-year junior college to a private four-year institution in 1962, and St. Mary's College of Maryland transitioned from a public junior college to a public four-year institution in 1967. Some public junior colleges transitioned into community colleges, including Danville Textile School, which became Danville Community College in 1968. Many of the community colleges across the Fifth District were opened (or transitioned from junior colleges) during this time. As of 1969, 93 of the 121 community colleges currently operating in the Fifth District had been established.

Number of Community Colleges in the State
19692023
Maryland1416
North Carolina5058
South Carolina1316
Virginia1423
West Virginia28

Community Colleges Evolve

In 1972, the AAJC became the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges (AACJC); then, in 1992, it became the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) since the term "junior college" was rarely used. Today, the AACC represents over 1,000 public and private associate degree-granting institutions in the United States.

The role of community colleges has evolved, growing both in scope and enrollment. What has remained relatively constant is the view that community colleges should offer a comprehensive set of academic programs, ranging from technical skills to transfer-ready liberal arts courses. Additionally, community colleges across the Fifth District continue to serve certain geographic regions. Community colleges started out as junior colleges and meant to restrict access to higher education. However, over the years, they have evolved to increase access to higher education and the workforce, providing affordable pathways to bachelor's degrees and technical careers. The role of community colleges is constantly evolving based on employment and community needs. Our recent District Dialogues event focused on some of these recent developments, which have accelerated in the post-COVID-19 era.

What remains unknown is the future path of community college evolvement. Do community colleges continue to change incrementally and remain relatively similar to today's structure? Or do changes in academic and workforce needs lead to a major sea change like in the 1930s or 1960s? Even amid the uncertainty, community colleges will continue to play a pivotal role in providing workers with the skills they need to succeed in the workforce.


Views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond or the Federal Reserve System.

Related Content


The looming FAFSA crisis has continued into June, likely leading to a decrease in enrollments for grant and federal loan dependent schools. In turn, community colleges may see an enrollment increase.

Phone Icon Contact Us

Laura Dawson Ullrich (704) 358-2102
Jason Kosakow (571) 287-0448