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Community Colleges

Public Higher Education Superstar

Gail O. Mellow, Jamestown Community College, A.A.; SUNY Albany, B.A.; George Washington University, Ph.D; President, LaGuardia Community College/CUNY.

Tara Jean Hickman (right) of LaGuardia Community College teaches an urban sociology class, 2009.

Community colleges are an American innovation. Embodying our nation’s democratic ideals, they provide open admissions and lower tuition. Established over a century ago, community or two-year colleges, such as Pasadena City College (PCC), evolved from makeshift locations within local high schools to multi-campus districts serving tens of thousands of students.

The history of St. Philips College in San Antonio, Texas, is an early example of how community colleges developed. Founded as a sewing school in 1898 by the Episcopal Church, it went through many transformations — a parochial school, an industrial school, a private two-year college before becoming a public college in 1942. A historically African-American college which also serves a Hispanic population, it is now part of the Alamo Community College District. St. Philips and other community colleges have served through the needs of their diverse populations as the economy and society has changed.

Only 200 two-year colleges existed before World War II. But public higher-education officials focused on community colleges when they expanded their systems from the 1950s-1970s, spurred by the G.I. Bill. This increased high school graduation rates among baby boomers, an increase of minority enrollment during the civil rights movement and an influx of Vietnam veterans. In the 1970s and 1980s, women’s enrollment grew, influenced by the women’s rights movement and the demands of the economy. A new community college opened on average every month in the early 1970s.

Pasadena City College 75th Anniversary Quilt, center section, 2003.

Enrollment in 2008 totaled about 6.2 million, nearly half of all undergraduates, and more than half of all minority students begin their postsecondary education at the nation’s 1,045 community colleges. These institutions provide a wide array of educational opportunities, including services for small businesses, technical and vocational education, continuing education, GED programs and education for students transferring to four-year colleges.

Pennsylvania Highlands Community College
Alias Varkey preparing a dish in the culinary arts program at Macomb Community College, Warren and Clinton Township, Michigan, c. 2008. College.
Jill Biden, an English professor at Northern Virginia community College, gave the 2009 commencement speech at Kingsborough Community College/CUNY.