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The California Community Colleges

History

Throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century, states established public colleges and universities, funded enrollment expansion, and launched an experiment in social engineering. The result was a transformation of the scope and purpose of American higher education. California can be seen as leading this transformation. California reflected the struggle of most other states to coordinate their respective public institutions. Issues of governance, autonomy, funding, and accountability gained greater importance in local and statewide politics. As the need of higher education in American society increased, the number of public institutions grew. The cost to taxpayers advanced these developments, but it differed in its early development of a coherent organizational structure for public higher education. In the Progressive Era, California established and funded a groundbreaking, geographically dispersed system of public colleges and a multi-campus state university .  California Progressives created a social contract and an organizational structure that coupled the promise of broad access to public higher education with a desire to develop institutions of high academic quality—an influential model that John Douglass, in his book The California Idea and American Higher Education: 1850 to the 1960 Master Plans, calls “The California Idea.”

A Pivotal Role

California played a pivotal role in the development of community colleges and districts in America. Legislation in California produced some of the earliest community colleges in the country. The district college soon became the model for most public community colleges in the nation and other states moved quickly to pass similar legislation.

Social, political, and economic forces shaped public higher education in California.  Its major personalities include David Starr Jordan, Benjamin Ide Wheeler, Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren, and Clark Kerr.

The first two-year colleges in California began with the recognition by local townspeople that many young high school graduates, unable to take up residence at an often distant college or university (usually for financial reasons), might benefit from college level studies. The founders of these institutions tended to be modest about their aspirations. They wanted to make it clear that they were in no sense proposing to compete with four-year universities.

Generally, these colleges were established by an existing high school district as just one more service offered to the community by the democratic school system. It was not long, however, before the "post high school experience" grew into full-fledged junior colleges. Ultimately these institutions became today's "comprehensive" California Community Colleges.

image of old photo of college buildingThough some debate the origins of how the junior college came to California, evidence points to William Rainey Harper, President of the University of Chicago. Letters authored by Harper around 1900 noted that he was working with three California Colleges on the junior college idea. However, it was David Starr Jordan, President of Stanford College, who became the most important figure in the junior college movement in California. Jordan's friendship and exchanges with Harper, as well as his tenacious persuit of the separation from the university's lower division, made him one of the most important figures in California's two-year college movement.

A California law adopted in 1907 (Upward Extension Law) allowed high schools to offer "postgraduate" classes. Many historians have described this law as the beginning of the California junior college system. The historical record, however, does not support this view. Both extended high schools and two-year colleges appear to have existed before the 1907 law. There is some historical evidence that many California high schools were already offering post diploma courses before the law was passed. William Rainey Harper noted in 1900 that five California colleges were already preparing to convert to junior colleges. These institutions may have converted before 1907 (Witt, p 53).

The first use of the Upward Extension Law in the state was Fresno High School around 1910. With the assistance of universities Stanford and Berkeley, a principal and instructors were chosen for the first junior college in California. The school provided courses primarily to prepare persons for work in agriculture or industry. In 1913, Bakersfield, Fullerton, and Long Beach founded junior colleges. Between 1915-1916, Azuza, Chaffey, Riverside, Sacramento, and Santa Ana followed suit. By the end of the decade, California had created the most extensive junior college system in the nation (Witt, p. 53).

The Development of Districts in California

Another piece of California legislation passed in 1917, the Ballard Act, which provided state and county support for junior colleges. This Act followed the state funding formula for high schools and provided funding to community colleges on a per-student basis. In 1921, the District Junior College Law amended the Ballard Act. This law allowed for the creation of community college districts to fund and administer junior colleges in California (Witt, p. 52-53).

With the establishment of college district boards of education, freestanding institutions of higher education were controlled by the electorate, not by an academic elite. This combination of local control and public funding allowed junior colleges to adapt rapidly to the needs of their districts. Local control also contributed to the rise of vocational education, adult education, evening classes, and other innovations that distinguish today's community colleges. This new law had an immediate effect as three junior college districts formed soon after, including Modesto College in September 1921. Eight days later Riverside Junior College reorganized under a district plan, and two months later Sacramento created a college district. California had thirty-one public junior colleges, fourteen of them districts, by 1928. The 1920's and 1930's were a period of increased growth and interest in the community college. By 1930, approximately 150,000 students were enrolled in the community college system (Witt, p 96-113). Most of that growth took place in Illinois, Texas, and California.

The second world war created a demand for vocational programs. Many junior colleges participated in the newly approved Civilian Pilot Training Program. The greatest concentration of these programs was in California and Texas. This defense effort provided a boon, increase in scope, and new acceptance for junior college vocational programs. In addition, with students facing military draft, junior colleges began offering accelerated degree programs. For example, San Bernardino Junior College shortened their associate degree to three semesters (Witt, p.119). Throughout the nation, despite the fact that the Selective Service Act of 1940 exempted college and university students from the draft, enrollments declined and small private junior colleges closed. Conversely, California's booming defense industry provided for an establishment of ten new colleges during the war. By 1945, the state had fifty-seven junior colleges (Witt, p. 125-128).

Following World War II, colleges were given a boost with the passage of the GI Bill. Under the GI Bill, any honorably discharged veteran who had served ninety days or was injured in the line of duty was entitled to a free college education. The government would pay for tuition, books, and fees at any approved institution. After the decline in enrollments nationwide, colleges scrambled to meet the demand. Once again, California blazed ahead of the nation with the establishment of 18 new public junior colleges in the first five years after the GI Bill passage (Witt, p. 128).

By the end of the 1950's, as the baby boom generation was preparing to graduate from high school, California claimed the largest two-year college enrollment in America. Nearly 300,000 students were part time or adult education students. About 91,000 were enrolled in full-time or certificate programs (Witt, p. 165).

The history of California public higher education from statehood to politics and economic forces eventually resulted in the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education.  This plan, formulated by a commission headed by Clark Kerr, then president of the University of California, remains the controversial basis of California Higher Education today. By the end of the decade nearly half the states in the nation had adopted similar plans. The controversial plan created a three-tiered system of higher education and placed new restrictions on admissions to state colleges and universities. The upper 41 percent of graduates could enter other state colleges and universities. The remaining students would be diverted to the state's junior colleges. Many complained that the poorest of students were being relegated to two-year colleges. Others felt that the two-year college provided a nurturing environment where students, eliminated from a state university, succeeded.

During the 1970's, community colleges nationwide faced a drop in enrollments. California's system felt an enormous 9 percent decrease. In addition, on June 6th, 1978, nearly two-thirds of California's voters passed Proposition 13, reducing the property tax by about 57%. Funding control shifted to the State, with the Legislature increasingly involved in community college operations.

A Priceless Treasure

Due in part to a national recession, two-year colleges experienced a resurgence after nearly four years of stagnant enrollment. In addition, between 1980 and 1990 minority groups fueled the growth in the nation and contributed to the new wave of Americans entering colleges. Community colleges served as the gateway to higher education for this new wave of students,which called for the restructuring of missions and goals, shared governance, learning styles, and faculty and staff diversity. Ironically, this resurgence was temporarily short lived as increased military spending and a long period of economic growth signaled another downturn in enrollments. Community colleges looked for new ways to reach out into untapped sections of the community (high schools, senior citizen centers, and prisons). These efforts increased enrollments tremendously. During the 1980's, two-year colleges gained increasing attention from the White House, as two-year colleges served more voters and existed in most every congressional district. During an interview with a community college delegation, then President Ronald Reagan called community colleges, "a priceless treasure--close to our homes and work, providing open doors for millions of our fellow citizens...the original higher education melting pot (Witt, p. 264)."

Tidal Wave II

In the 21st Century new challenges face California Community Colleges. The importance, effectiveness, and role of community college education in the competitive California economy is growing. In March of 2000, the State of California's Little Hoover Commission undertook a study to determine how well community colleges were meeting state goals. The Little Hoover Commission, formally known as the Milton Marks "Little Hoover" Commission on California State Government Organization and Economy, is an independent state oversight agency that was created in 1962. The Commission's mission is to investigate state government operations and, through reports, recommendations and legislative proposals, promote efficiency, economy and improved service. According to the commission, the Department of Finance projects a 25 percent increase from 1996 enrollment. Access to and effectiveness of community colleges is under greater scrutiny due to this projected increase.

The commission focused on two issues: first, understanding the evolving mission of the community colleges and the roles community colleges play in post-secondary education; second, reviewing whether community colleges successfully realize their mission. In short, one of the more significant commission findings was that the success of the community colleges depends on the quality of teaching as well as true access to the educational services that individual students need. The commission's findings and recommendations are presented in four sections:

  • Making Teaching Count: Quality teaching is not prioritized in hiring, professional development, or tenure decisions.
  • Ensuring Access and Benefit for All: Colleges fail to identify the potential students they intend to serve, the barriers that prevent those populations from benefiting from the colleges, or how resource decisions can best serve access goals.
  • Aligning Funding with Purpose: Community college funding is baseline and enrollment driven. Funding structures do little to encourage individual colleges or the colleges as a system to promote efficiency, cost effectiveness or access.
  • Reinvigorating Governance: Community college leadership is bifurcated between state and local decision-makers, both of them bound by procedures intended to give all parties a seat at the table. In the absence of leadership this muddled governance mutes responsibility and accountability for the quality and the cost-effectiveness of services offered.

William Rainey Harper's plan to revolutionize higher education is still alive in the ever changing California's community colleges.The associate degree has become an accepted standard of achievement, and millions of students who would have otherwise been unserved find an open gateway in California's two-year colleges.


A Handbook on the Community College in America. It's History, Mission, and Management. Ed. George A. Baker III. Greenwood Press, 1994.

Brossman, Sidney W., and Myron Roberts. The California Community Colleges. Field Educational Publications Incorporated, 1973.

Douglass, J.A. The California Idea and American Higher Education: 1850 to the 1960 Master Plan. Stanford University Press, 2000.

Open Doors and Open Minds: Improving Access and Quality in California's Community Colleges. State of California Little Hoover Commission, March 2000. http://www.lhc.ca.gov/lhc.html

Witt, Allen A., James L. Wattenbarger, James F. Gollattscheck, and Joseph E. Suppinger. America's Community Colleges: The First Century, Community College Press, 1994. (p. 34).


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