Gateway to Opportunity?: A History of the Community College in the United States

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Can the U.S. keep its dominant economic position in the world economy with only 30% of its population holding bachelor’s degrees? If the majority of U.S. citizens lack a higher education, can the U.S. live up to its democratic principles and preserve its political institutions?

These questions raise the critical issue of access to higher education, central to which are America’s open-access, low-cost community colleges that enroll around half of all first-time freshmen in the U.S. Can these institutions bridge the gap, and how might they do so? The answer is complicated by multiple missions―gateways to 4-year colleges, providers of occupational education, community services, and workforce development, as well as of basic skills instruction and remediation.

To enable today’s administrators and policy makers to understand and contextualize the complexity of the present, this history describes and analyzes the ideological, social, and political motives that led to the creation of community colleges, and that have shaped their subsequent development. In doing so, it fills a large void in our knowledge of these institutions.

The “junior college,” later renamed the “community college” in the 1960s and 1970s, was originally designed to limit access to higher education in the name of social efficiency. Subsequently leaders and communities tried to refashion this institution into a tool for increased social mobility, community organization, and regional economic development. Thus, community colleges were born of contradictions, and continue to be an enigma.

This history examines the institutionalization process of the community college in the United States, casting light on how this educational institution was formed, for what purposes, and how has it evolved. It uncovers the historically conditioned rules, procedures, rituals, and ideas that ordered and defined the particular educational structure of these colleges; and focuses on the individuals, organizations, ideas, and the larger political economy that contributed to defining the community college’s educational missions, and have enabled or constrained this institution from enacting those missions. He also sets the history in the context of the contemporary debates about access and effectiveness, and traces how these colleges have responded to calls for accountability from the 1970s to the present.

Community colleges hold immense promise if they can overcome their historical legacy and be re-institutionalized with unified missions, clear goals of educational success, and adequate financial resources. This book presents the history in all its complexity so that policy makers and practitioners might better understand the constraints of the past in an effort to realize the possibilities of the future.

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