Community Colleges – What Are They?

They are often referred to as “junior colleges,” but there is nothing junior about them. Community Colleges offer a wide array of high quality programs. *

Community College Overview

J.M. Beach referred to community colleges as a GATEWAY TO OPPORTUNITY. Many people, including President Obama, agree with this descriptor. The Obama administration approved $500 million to help community colleges prepare workers for new jobs.

Community colleges are two-year, post-secondary institutions. In the beginning, most of these institutions were known as junior colleges, but nearly all have changed their identity to that of a community college. Community colleges offer a wide assortment of programs ranging from non-credit classes to associate degrees designed to transfer and Career and Technical Education (CTE) degrees to numerous non-credit classes. The curricula at some two-year “technical colleges” focus primarily on CTE degrees and certificates. The names of these institutions vary as do the educational services each provide, but today there are more than 1,600 of these institutions in the United States, and they provide a wide array of educational services to millions of students each year.

A Brief History of Community Colleges

The first public two-year college, Joliet Junior College (JJC), was founded in 1901 by J. Stanley Brown, superintendent of Joliet Township High School and William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago. Students took their first two years of coursework at this junior colleges and then transferred to a senior college (a.k.a. university) to complete their baccalaureate degree.

For the first half of the 20th century, the term “community college” was used to describe some of the new two-year colleges that were founded across the United States (Ayers, 2010). In 1947, the Truman Commission’s report, Higher Education for American Democracy, endorsed the concept of a national system of two-year colleges, and the term became more universally accepted. Over time, most junior colleges changed their name, dropping the word “junior,” but JCC has remained true to its roots.

During the second half of the 20th century, hundreds of community colleges sprung up across the nation, 497 in the 60’s alone (Ayers, 2010). Unlike universities, community colleges were assigned districts, from which they drew there enrollments. Quite commonly, business and community leaders urged their community colleges to focus on CTE programs, but institutions offering transfer degrees continued to do so. Furthermore, many of these colleges began expanding their range of programs and services to serve the needs of the community.

The Modern Day Community College System

The United States Department of Education website summarizes data from a 1999-2000 study of community colleges. Some of the more interesting facts are provided below.

  • There were 1,655 community colleges, of which 1,047 were public institutions and 415 private.
  • Sixty-two percent of public community colleges had an open enrollment policy, compared to 7.5 percent of public 4-year colleges.
  • There were 5,590,000 students enrolled at community colleges, which constituted 47 percent of all public college enrollments.
  • These enrollments were comprised of 2.3 million men and 3.2 million women.
  • Twenty-three percent of those who enrolled in a community college during the 1989-1990 academic year transferred to a 4-year institution, 38 percent of them having completed an associate degree.
  • In order of popularity, the majority of degrees were awarded in: 1) liberal arts and sciences; 2) general studies; 3) business management and administrative services; 4) Health professions and related fields; 5) Engineering related technologies; and 6) Computer and information sciences.

A more recent estimate placed the number of community college enrollments at nearly seven million, or 43 percent of all college and university undergraduates (McKay, 2010). Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicated that 90 percent of Americans live within twenty-five miles of a community college (Ayers, 2010). And these institutions serve students from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Fifty-two percent of American Indians, 45 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, and 42 percent of black undergraduates attend a community college (Ayers, 2010).

The Diversity of Community Colleges

Not only do community colleges serve a diverse student population, the colleges themselves vary significantly. While the term community college is the most commonly accepted descriptor, “junior college” is a term still often heard. Many two-year colleges identify themselves as “technical colleges,” and focus on terminal degrees, meaning those designed to prepare students for employment. Some two years colleges have disassociated themselves with other two year colleges by eliminating the word “community” from their name. Harper College, named in honor of the co-founder Joliet Junior College, is one example. And Harper College represents a newer trend. Some “two-year” colleges are making four year degrees available to their students.

In addition to degrees and certificates, community colleges offer non-credit classes. Most have GED and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. Many have training programs that serve the needs of businesses and classes that appeal to the interests of local community members.

Community Colleges also vary in size. Many report enrollments in the thousands, and some of the larger institutions have enrollments of more than 20,000. Enrollments at the College of DuPage have reached 31,000 students each semester.

Regardless what the two-year school is called, no matter what the name, these institutions address the wants and needs of their communities. In so doing, they provide quality educational opportunities that their students might not otherwise have.


Ayers, David F. “Putting the Community Back into the College.” Academe, May/Apr2010, Vol. 96 Issue 3.

Wilson, David McKay. “The Casualties of the Twenty-First-Century Community College.” Academe, May/Apr2010, Vol. 96 Issue 3.

*  This article was originally published on Suite101 June 26,2010.

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Posted May 5, 2012


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