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Origin of the two-year college

Two-year colleges have been a part of American higher education for only a century. William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago, created the first two-year college-Joliet Junior College-in 1901, when he grew concerned about the high number of under-prepared students that were entering the university. He believed, as many did, that a different kind of institution was needed to serve these students well. Joliet Junior College provided students with the first two foundation years of a baccalaureate degree and additional academic support to ready them for transfer to the third year at a university, as well as occupational programs to prepare students for entry into the workforce. Harper's notion took hold in America, and over the next two decades two-year colleges began to proliferate around the nation.

After the Great Depression-when the nation was undergoing major economic change - the federal government funded the creation of more two-year institutions to meet an urgent national need for workforce retraining. These institutions, which were intended to provide broader access to higher education, were designed predominantly with an occupational focus, to help the nation transition from an agrarian to an industrialized economy.

More two-year institutions came on line in the post-World War II years, when the "G.I. Bill" was passed by Congress to support returning veterans who required retraining to prepare for civilian jobs. Between 1944 and 1947, as more two-year institutions were established, enrollment at two-year colleges more than doubled. This growth was fueled in part by the Truman Commission, which in 1947 called for the establishment of a network of low-cost community colleges for all who wanted a college education. It was the Truman Commission that popularized the term "community college."

The 1960's brought the biggest wave of two-year colleges, as the notion of higher education for all who aspired to go to college took root across the nation. During this decade two-year colleges were created at an average of one new college per week.

Two-year colleges today

Today, public and private two-year colleges exist in the United States. They serve almost half of the undergraduate students in the United States, providing open access to postsecondary education, preparing students for transfer to 4-year institutions, providing workforce development and skills training, and offering noncredit programs ranging from English as a second language to skills retraining to community enrichment programs or cultural activities.

Globalization is driving changes in our economy, and the need for an educated workforce has never been greater. The majority of new jobs that will be created by 2014 will require some postsecondary education. In addition, the demographics of the workforce are changing. As a result, employers increasingly rely on the very students who currently are least likely to complete their education.

Without community colleges, millions of students and adult learners would not be able to access the education they need to be prepared for further education or the workplace. Community colleges often are the access point for education in a town and a real catalyst for economic development.