Maintaining Open Access Admissions within the Community College System

Open Access InstitutionsMaintaining Open Access Admissions within the Community College System

Charlene Adams-Mahaley
Independent College Admissions Counselor

The Commission on Student Development in the 2 Year College is sponsoring this series to expose readers to the past, present, and future of open access institutions. Open access institutions are colleges that are nonselective in their admission standards. Primarily two-year or community colleges provide open access to students.    For many at-risk students with low academic performance, open access institutions are the only gateway for pursuing higher education.  With the pressure to meet new standards for graduation rates set forth by the American Graduation Initiative, the mission of open access is at risk.  Admitting students with little to no academic resources while dealing with external pressure to increase graduation rates could force some institutions to move away from their traditional mission and create academic standards that would bolster graduation rates and meet the demands of the Federal government.


In this essay, I will discuss the potent historical developments of the community college and explain, in the spirit of democracy, why the two-year college open door admission policy remains the hallmark of higher education today.  This will guide the reader to understanding how the historic twentieth century community college, founded by James Bryant Conant (Brint & Karabel, 1989), attributed to the present equalitarian mission of achieving social and civil justice in higher education attainment.

The Junior College Movement

James Bryant Conant, the 23rd president of Harvard University, is considered the father of the junior college movement and attributed to the present equalitarian mission of achieving social justice at the community college level (Brint & Karabel, 1989).  In his classic book Education in a Divided World,  Conant (1948) asserted that “it is the fundamental duty of the country to provide every citizen an equal opportunity to an education up to the 14th grade, in order to thoroughly compete technologically and in science with the Soviet Union for national prosperity” (p.200).  Conant (1948) like Hillway (1958), believed that the democratic principles of the two-year junior college should provide adult education, workforce degrees, and a rigorous general education for students underprepared to enter a four-year institution.  Inevitably, he believed that the two-year college would “relieve the research colleges and universities,” (Conant, 1956, p.58) of nontraditional students entering college after the Second World War and prevent an institutional strain of excessive over-crowding (Hillway, 1958).

In addition, as the former president of Harvard University, Conant’s voice as an ambassadorial advocate for the American Association of Junior Colleges (AAJC) provided an understandable moral argument on the importance of the two-year college. I believe this helped to ignite the junior college movement as an effective postsecondary option with less emphasis on academic traditionalism. Nevertheless, although Conant and the AAJC disagreed on the transfer function as an essential component of the two-year institution (Brint & Karabel, 1989), the solemn relationship between Conant and the AAJC served to operationalize open access as the imperative mission of the junior college movement. Thus, given the distinct institutional purpose, the term “junior” was thereby replaced with the term “community” to reaffirm the democratic duty of serving broader populations regardless of social class, creed, and ethnicity. Thus, community college became the official name used to describe the venerable two-year institution (Hillway, 1958).

Although Conant professed the fundamental role of the two-year college in offering lower division coursework and vocational training to ordinary citizens, he failed to advance the equal significance of the community college in comparison to the research university. As a result, with respect to the American college structure, the community college became associated with being subordinate to the four-year institution, which heretofore resulted in an unduly hierarchal educational structure (Palinchak, 1973). Consequently, this controversial standing suggested that the democratizing open access community college was second best in stature (Zwerling, 1976).  Given this misconception, Cohen and Brawer (1996), posited that the two-year college is not an inferior institution, but instead a student-centered institution that has produced an inclusive campus environment that is often viewed as righting the historical struggles relative to ethnic and gender inequities. Furthermore, from a justice perspective, the open-door college is a much-needed institution that looks beyond family background, socioeconomic demographics, and admits students that otherwise would not have access to postsecondary learning opportunities (Cohen & Brawer, 1996; Shannon & Smith, 2006).

Democratizing Mission of the Community College

American community colleges represent over 42% of all higher education institutions in the United States, and serve 13 million of the undergraduate student population (American Association of Community Colleges, 2013). Moreover, they serve a disproportionally ethnically and culturally diverse student body that is often identified as low income, first generation, single parent, freshman, non-traditional aged, and work either full-time or part-time while enrolled (Shannon & Smith, 2006). The low tuition cost, open access, and close proximity to family and neighborhood communities are also among the reasons why first-year and first time in college students (FTIC) choose to enroll at a community college as their initial choice for postsecondary training  (Cohen & Brawer, 2003).

Therefore, it is not surprising to learn that the two-year college is a major point of entry for many diverse and international student populations seeking higher education. Essentially, this enrollment trend facilitates a self-help behavior that is potentially linked to the open access policy. However, presently there is no resolve with reference to the fundamental question frequently directed at community colleges-specifically: “Is the open door access policy a gateway or impasse to higher education completion?” Although education practitioners frequently express that the community college is “democracy’s open door” to diverse college student populations (Cohen & Brawer, 1996; Griffith & Connor, 1994), whether the open door policy contributes to sustainable student achievement and resilience over time remains a controversial question (Brint & Karabel, 1989).

In response to the aforementioned discourse, educators and researchers must first understand conceptually what the open door is supposed to mean to the general education community and the estimated 40% of undergraduate students enrolled at the community college level (National Center for Education Statistics, 2010). Open door can be operationally defined or described as the democratizing practice that extends beyond the open admission policy and excludes no one (Rhoades & Valadez, 1996). In addition, as a result of the open door access, Rhoades and Valadez (1996) explain that over time the enrollment opportunity should empower and prepare students to participate in “various economic, political, and social institutions” (p. 34).  In this regard, one could conclude that vocational training in a high need field or associate degree completion, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) related areas, may provide potential economic and vocational opportunities that a non-college student would not have.

Conflicting Perceptions of the Open Door Policy

Dougherty (1994), an outspoken critic of the community college open door structure, argues that the community college overemphasizes remedial, vocational, and technical oriented programs, which can hinder student persistence; particularly for students labeled at-risk. As a result, this may produce what Clark (1960) invoked as a cooling out effect—the displacement or restraint of students’ academic aspirations. From a motivational perspective, this concept suggests that a student enrolled at a 2-year college is at risk of not transferring to complete a baccalaureate program in comparison to a student starting at a 4-year institution.  In sum, the cooling out attitude detracts a student from persisting, thereby making him or her less likely to transfer and graduate with a college degree (Brint & Karabel, 1989).  

The problem with the above analysis is threefold.  First, it generalizes that the 4-year versus 2-year degree is the criteria for personal academic success. Second, it implies that the community college is not of equal value or benefit in contrast to the university experience. Third, it suggests that the cooling out behavior is long-standing. Essentially, one should note, that the community college should not be solely measured by the similarities or differences between the two college types or the number of transfer students that enter the baccalaureate pipeline. Therefore, the cooling out stricture is indeed an inaccurate and outworn view of the American community college system that must be refuted intelligently and consistently whenever it presents itself to encourage meaningful dialog.

Another investigator that received wide research attention was Monk-Turner (1995).  In her study on higher education labor market return, community college students were less likely than their four-year counterparts to experience career success because four-year college graduates’ had higher earnings than two-year graduates with an associate degree. However, despite Monk-Turner’s (1995) claim on the predictive relationships between academic degree type and economic return, the comparative weakness of the cost-benefit study to educational attainment gave low salience to inhibiting sociological differences such as family income status, access to pre-employment mentoring, societal inequities, and social capital factors that have historically widened the earning gap and produced unequal income earning trends among ethnic groups.


In response to Monk-Turners controversial conclusion, Harvard trained educational economists, Kane and Rouse (1995, 1999) also investigated the labor market benefits of the associate degree on a cost-to-benefit human capital analysis. They found that low socioeconomic status (SES) students that enrolled at the community college with a high school diploma received an opportunity out of poverty despite past economic limitations to financial resources.  On the basis of the human capital investment argument, Kane and Rouse (1995) asserted:

A simple cost-to-benefit analysis shows that, for over 30 years the community college student who completes even one semester will earn more than enough to compensate him for the cost of schooling. Second there is an option value to college entry if students are able to gain more information about the costs and benefits of further investments. When one is uncertain about the prospects of completing college before entry, there will be a value attached to enrolling in order to discover if one is college material.  (p. 611)

Clearly, Kane and Rouse provide an intriguing analysis that makes a strong case for the economic benefits of enrolling in a two-year college for multiple semesters and/or completing an associate degree. More recently, Belfield & Bailey (2011) found that the labor market return for an Associate of Science or Associate of Applied Science degree in a STEM field potentially produced higher labor market outcomes. These results give credence to Boggs’ (2012) contention that “community colleges play an essential role in preparing the nation’s workforce” (p. 37).

Two-Year Colleges: Institutional Effectiveness and Funding Efforts

Community colleges’ commitment to educating ordinary citizens is a distinct postsecondary development and undoubtedly makes them the hallmark of higher education. From this point of view, the two-year college successfully creates possibilities and not obstacles for students seeking higher learning. Although community college leaders and their constituents recognize the challenges of reducing high student attrition, they remain committed to preserving enrollment flexibility so students can enroll on their own terms. For instance, a nontraditional aged adult can enroll in a short or long-term workforce degree or certificate program to either increase wages or enhance job skills with no further enrollment obligation.  Likewise, a reverse transfer student may take summer courses at the community college and return to their home university in the subsequent semester. Thus, community colleges are fundamentally multi-mission institutions that have the ability to deliver higher learning on demand, despite reduced state funding, rising enrollment, and higher accountability based standards.

In an effort to buffer the effects of reduced funding appropriations, innovative partnerships between two-and four-year colleges, secondary schools, and the private industry sector have formed to ultimately (a) improve overall student achievement; (b) increase degree completion rates; and (c) generate optimal revenue in grant funding to support academic services and programs.  Additionally, state governments have provided new education grant funding opportunities to improve student retention efforts and develop workforce training programs conducive to the needs of the labor market.  In this vein, to make consistent progress toward future workforce objectives, further exploratory research investigating intervention-prevention best practices in higher education is warranted.

For example, when assessing the paradigmatic effectiveness of two-year colleges and the qualitative experiences of enrolled students, it’s unwise to solely focus on why students leave before completing a degree as a dominate research topic.  Instead, to understand the contributory institutional variables that impact persistence, greater longitudinal attention should focus on students that persist until associate degree completion or/and transfer to a four-year institution, despite repressive obstacles or personal barriers. Doing so will unravel the subjective realities faced by a robust number of students that choose to enroll at the two-year college. Such realities will demonstrate that to dismantle the flexible open door structure is to block the much-needed door of opportunity for the next generation of new college age students. And to ignore this fact is to nullify rather than endorse our distinct egalitarian doctrine of access for all rather than a selective few.

Discussion Questions

This essay has attempted to endorse the importance of the community college mission and to spark discussion on the impact that the two-year college has had upon student success and influencing self-actualization.  Thus, student services practitioners and faculty members at two-and four-year colleges are encouraged to appropriately build on this discussion by addressing student development and retention areas regarding:

  1. How does the academic identity influence success in college?
  2. What critical service utilization factors enable enrolled students of different gender, age-ranges, and socioeconomic backgrounds to persist and successfully transfer from a community college to a four-year university?
  3. Do mandatory advising sessions help college students overcome nonacademic barriers to course completion and develop a healthier academic identity?


American Association of Community Colleges, Fast Facts. (accessed January 3, 2014).

Belfield, C. R., & Bailey, T. (2011, January). The benefits of attending community college: A review of the

evidence. Community College Review, 39, 46-68.

Boggs, G. R. (2012, February/Mach). The evolution of the community college in America: Democracy’s colleges.

Community College Journal, 82(4), 36-39.

Brint, S., & Karabel, J. (1989). The diverted dream: Community colleges and the promise of educational opportunity in America, 1900-1985. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Clark, B. R. (1960). The cooling function in higher education. American Journal of Sociology, 65, 569-576.

Cohen, A. M., & Brawer, F. B. (1996). The American community college (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cohen, A. M., & Brawer, F. B. (2003). The American two-year college (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Conant, J. B. (1948). Education in a divided world. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Conant, J. B. (1956). The citadel of learning. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Dougherty, K. J. (1994). The contradictory college: The conflicting origins, impacts, and futures of the community college. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Griffith, M., & Connor, A. (1994). Democracy’s open door: The community college in America’s future. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc.

Hillway, T. (1958). The American 2- year college. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.

Kane, T. J., & Rouse, C. E. (1995). Labor-market returns to two-and four-year college. The American Economic

Review, 85(3), 600-614.

Kane, T. J., & Rouse, C. E. (1999). The community college: Educating students at the margin between college and

Work, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 13(1), 63-84.

Monk-Turner, E. (1995). Factors shaping the probability of community vs. 4- year college entrance and

acquisition of the B.A. degree. Social Science Journal, 32, 255-264.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2010). The condition of education 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics.

Palinchak, R.S. (1973). The evolution of the community college. Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press.

Rhoads, R. A., & Valadez, J. R. (1996). Democracy, multiculturalism, and the community college: A critical perspective. New York, NY: Garland.

Shannon, H. D., & Smith, R. C. (2006). A case for the community college’s open access mission. New Directions for Community Colleges, 136, 15-21.

Slevin, J. (2010). President Obama’s graduation initiative: Higher education for the 21st century. Insight into Diversity, 5.

Zwerling, S.T. (1976). Second best: The crisis of the community college. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

About the Author
Charlene Adams-Mahaley, Ed.D., is an independent college admissions counselor and consultant. Her primary fields of interest are identity and stratification theory, social inequality, and college retention. Adams-Mahaley is currently working on a college admissions planning handbook for high school students and parents.

Please e-mail inquiries to Charlene Adams-Mahaley.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

The Role of Open Access on the Function of Community Colleges


The Role of Open Access on the Function of Community Colleges

Lorrie Budd
Community College of Baltimore County

The Commission on Student Development in the 2 Year College is sponsoring this series to expose readers to the past, present, and future of open access institutions. Open access institutions are colleges that are nonselective in their admission standards. Primarily two-year or community colleges provide open access to students.    For many at-risk students with low academic performance, open access institutions are the only gateway for pursuing higher education.  With the pressure to meet new standards for graduation rates set forth by the American Graduation Initiative, the mission of open access is at risk.  Admitting students with little to no academic resources while dealing with external pressure to increase graduation rates could force some institutions to movewhile dealing with external pressure to increase graduation rates ents with the en access I away from their traditional mission and create academic standards that would bolster graduation rates and meet the demands of the Federal government.


With over half of public community colleges offering open access, higher education has become attainable for many who seek postsecondary credentials.  However, the concept of selectivity or lack thereof has created hurdles for community colleges.  Consequently, open access affects the function of community colleges in terms of student support services, and institutions must be prepared to provide assistance in a different manner than selective institutions.  The following analysis describes how open access shapes community college services, explores strategies colleges are using to balance the effectiveness of their services, and discusses the role open access plays in how community colleges address the academic, social, and emotional development of their students.

Open Access and College Services

The impact of open access on college services is evident from the very beginning of a student’s career at an institution.  During peak registration times, community college enrollment staff find their offices handling long lines, extending business hours, and even opening their doors when the offices are typically closed.  In order to accommodate students who are late registrants, many institutions have developed the trend of opening on weekend days prior to the first day of classes.  Additionally, many institutions continue to offer late registration periods that allow students to enroll even though classes have already begun.

The way open access enrollment is structured creates a domino effect for other services, such as new student orientation.  For example, because selective institutions, mainly four-year institutions, follow a traditional academic calendar, their admitted students register for fall classes by the summer months.  Therefore, they offer new student orientation initiatives in June or July before the students arrive in late August to experience additional orientation, such as “Welcome Weeks,” and begin their coursework.

Open access institutions, on the other hand, enroll students throughout the summer months.  Although some community colleges do offer new student orientation sessions throughout the summer, many operate on a schedule that sponsors orientation just before classes start.  Unfortunately, this does not always allow for proper preparation time for students, as they are receiving pertinent information only days before their classes begin.  In addition, for some students who late register during the first week of classes, their institutions may not offer orientation at that time, so they miss out on the success tips that their peers received just days before them.

Strategies for Balancing Open Access and Services

Because of information overload for some students and lack of information delivery for others, open access institutions have brainstormed strategies to ensure students receive pertinent information.  Some institutions offer “crash” orientation sessions during the first week of classes.  Other colleges have contemplated and even implemented measures that could jeopardize their commitment to open access yet foster student success, such as eliminating late registration, adopting priorities for enrollment, and implementing selective recruitment practices, as explained below.

Advocates for late registration explain that the extended enrollment timeline is a key component of the open access agenda.  However, late registration critics are quick to point out that this method is detrimental to student success.  Smith, Street, and Olivarez (2002) conducted a study that revealed registration time as a factor of persistence.  They indicated that 80 percent of new students persisted from one semester to the next if they registered on time, whereas only 35 percent of new students persisted if they registered late.  With such discrepancies in persistence rates, community colleges are beginning to debate the effectiveness of late registration policies.  In fact, some colleges have eliminated late registration and have seen favorable results.  Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, reported significant increases in fall semester success rates and fall-to-spring persistence rates (O’Banion, 2012).  Specifically, Valencia College boasts a 90 percent persistence rate for new, college-ready students and an 84 percent persistence rate for new students who are required to take developmental education.

In addition, Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, has experienced improved rates of semester-to-semester persistence for all students (O’Banion, 2012).  Sinclair Community College has also found that eliminating late registration has improved efficiency in other areas: the scheduling of courses and classrooms ran more smoothly; registration, financial aid, and enrollment services staff members did not encounter as many urgent situations; and faculty members were able to begin their classes with accurate rosters.  Such results are instrumental in the debate regarding the effect of late registration on open access, student success, and completion.

In an attempt to further increase completion rates, colleges are considering priority enrollment procedures and targeted marketing strategies.  For example, the California community college system suggested giving priority registration to students who have taken their placement tests, participated in orientation, and developed educational plans (Gonzalez, 2012).  While California is focusing on priority enrollment measures, North Carolina is focusing on the selective marketing and recruiting strategies of specific demographic groups.  Despite the fact that approximately half of North Carolina community colleges practice targeted marketing and recruitment, Morris (2012) found that these strategies have little impact on access to higher education or the demographic composition of their student bodies.

Academic, Social, and Emotional Development

Regardless of enrollment practices, community colleges still attract a diverse group of students.  In particular, as a result of open access, academically underprepared students are given the opportunity to pursue higher education.  Thus, this demographic represents a large portion of the community college population.  In fact, approximately 60 percent of first-time community college students are referred to at least one developmental course (Bailey & Cho, 2010).  Because admission is guaranteed to all individuals, including underprepared degree seekers, open access institutions must provide effective developmental programs.  Consequently, community colleges are paramount in promoting educational access and equity goals by fostering the success of students who may need to build their skills for credit-bearing, college coursework.

If institutions plan to continue implementing developmental programs, they must include other crucial components in addition to the various levels and sequences of academic courses.  But what components are likely to produce higher rates of student persistence and satisfaction?  The answer is simple yet can be difficult for open access institutions to implement: effective programs not only target academic skills but social and emotional development as well.  By facilitating connections to support services, community colleges can increase the probability that their students will see rewarding results and their graduation rates will meet the standards set forth by the American Graduation Initiative (American Association of Community Colleges, 2009; Astin, 1999; Levin, Hernandez, & Cerven, 2010; Summers, 2003; Willet, 2002).

Connecting students to the college and to one another can be a successful tool for student completion.  Studies have shown that students are more likely to persist if they are involved in the academic and social life of the college (Tinto, 1998).  Although some students volunteer their time with clubs and service opportunities, the majority of community college students are not involved in college life.  According to the Center for Community College Student Engagement (2013), 80 percent of community college students reported that they did not spend any of their time participating in college-sponsored activities.  This could simply be a result of the open access mission, as many students tend to choose community colleges for the flexibility that allows them to devote more time to employment and family obligations.

As a result, community colleges must find ways to ensure that meaningful involvement is incorporated into the lives of all students, not just the ones who choose to get involved.  Tinto (1998) suggested learning communities as a potential solution.  Learning communities, which consist of linked courses, are more likely to incorporate additional support and have faculty who encourage the use of and connection to college services.

In addition to learning communities, Tinto (1998) proposed another promising practice: localizing the needs of students through targeted and varying degrees of coursework.  If higher education can enhance student assessment tools to more accurately identify student development needs, then community colleges could offer different degrees of coursework.  For instance, some students might need to enroll in full-semester or half-semester developmental courses, whereas others might be referred to take one or two specific modules, meet with tutors, or participate in group workshops to refine their skills.  Of course, such options require student affairs staff to build up their support services.

Regardless of how individual institutions address developmental education, strong student success centers are essential.  Support services that focus on tutoring, supplemental instruction, and technology assistance must be well staffed, provide proper training to employees, and be open at convenient times for students.  Like many other institutions, the Community College of Baltimore County in Baltimore, Maryland, attempts to meet the needs of their students by offering in-person and online tutoring appointments during the mornings, afternoons, and evenings throughout the week, and hours on the weekends as well.  Furthermore, in response to the high demand for math assistance, the Community College of Baltimore County makes math tutoring available on a walk-in basis so that students may visit with math tutors without having scheduled appointments.


With open admissions, community colleges allow for the attainment of academic degrees, certificates, workforce development, specific skill sets, and personal enrichment.  Because community colleges make upward mobility possible for many, open access institutions must operate in a different manner in order to meet the needs of their students and preserve access to higher education.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the pros and cons of late registration at open access institutions? How would eliminating late registration affect the operations at your institution?
  2. Some critics of open access institutions argue that open enrollment policies often perpetuate the cooling out function, which Clark (2006) explains as the process by which ill-prepared students pursue non-transfer tracks, earn degrees in areas that will pay less, or even fail out of college. Therefore, critics maintain that open access increases educational disparities and hinders social and economic mobility rather than achieving equity goals.  Choose a side of this debate and support your perspective.
  3. Many two-year colleges do not have residential facilities, which often assist in easy access to co-curricular activities and learning. How can community colleges engage their commuter populations in co-curricular activities when they have so many competing priorities (coursework, employment, family, etc.)?


American Association of Community Colleges. (2009). The American graduation initiative:  Stronger American skills through community colleges. Retrieved from

Astin, A. W. (1999). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Development, 40(5), 518-529.

Bailey, T., & Cho, S. (2010). Issue brief: Developmental education in community colleges (Prepared for The White House Summit on Community Colleges). Retrieved from Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University website:

Center for Community College Student Engagement. (2013). Standard reports for all students – 2013 cohort. Austin, TX: The University of Texas at Austin, Community College Leadership Program.

Clark, B. R. (2006). The “cooling-out” function in higher education. In B. Townsend & D. Bragg (Eds.), ASHE Reader on Community Colleges (pp. 55-61). Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Community College of Baltimore County. (2014). Retrieved from

Gonzalez, J. (2012). Education for all? 2-year colleges struggle to preserve their mission. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Levin, J. S., Hernandez, V. M., & Cerven, C. (2010). Succeeding in community college: Advancing the educational progress of working students. Policy Matters, 4(2), 1-11. Retrieved from

Morris, D. B. (2012). Community college selective enrollment and the challenge to open access. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from

O’Banion, T. (2012). Late registration: May it rest in peace. Community College Journal, 83(1), 26-31.

Perin, D., & Charron, K. (2006). “Lights just click on every day.” In T. Bailey and V. S. Morest (Eds.), Defending the community college equity agenda (pp. 155-194). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Smith, A. B., Street, M. A., & Olivarez, A. (2002). Early, regular, and late registration and community college student success: A case study. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 26(3), 261-271.

Summers, M. D. (2003). ERIC review: Attrition research at community colleges. Community College Review, 30(4), 64-84.

Tinto, V. (1998). Learning communities and the reconstruction of remedial education in higher education. Paper presented at the Conference on Replacing Remediation in Higher Education, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.

Willett, T. (2002). Impact of follow up counseling on academic performance and persistence. Retrieved from Gavilan College website: /FUEVALD2.PDF

About the Author

Lorrie Budd received her Bachelor of Science degree in family and community services and her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Stevenson University in 2005.  She graduated with her Master of Science degree in counseling with a concentration in college student personnel services from Shippensburg University, where she was a residence director for three years.  For three years post-graduate school, she continued her residence life experience and served as an Assistant Director of Student Life at Loyola University Maryland.  Currently, Lorrie is the Assistant Director of Student Life for First-Year Experience at the Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland and is a student at Morgan State University, where she plans to earn her Doctor of Education.  Her interest in open access and student services stems from her current experience working with first-year students and her doctoral studies in community college leadership.

Please e-mail inquiries to Lorrie Budd.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Historical Keys to Open Access in Community Colleges Between 1940 and the Mid-1970’s

Deborah Anderson, Ivy Tech Community College – Southwest/Wabash Valley Region

The Commission on Student Development in the 2 Year College is sponsoring this series to expose readers to the past, present, and future of open access institutions. Open access institutions are colleges that are nonselective in their admission standards. Primarily two-year or community colleges provide open access to students.    For many at-risk students with low academic performance, open access institutions are the only gateway for pursuing higher education.  With the pressure to meet new standards for graduation rates set forth by the American Graduation Initiative, the mission of open access is at risk.  Admitting students with little to no academic resources while dealing with external pressure to increase graduation rates could force some institutions to movewhile dealing with external pressure to increase graduation rates ents with the en access I away from their traditional mission and create academic standards that would bolster graduation rates and meet the demands of the Federal government.

The purpose of this article is to map the historical events and markers to open access postsecondary education relative to community colleges in the United States (U.S.). In this article, I will provide a discussion of key moments impacting open access in community colleges between 1940 and the mid-1970’s.  Additionally, I will share context regarding events prior to 1940 that influence the chronological history of open access and community colleges in the U.S.  Lastly, I will discuss these mile markers and how they have shaped contemporary community colleges.

Prior to 1940

The emergence of junior colleges profoundly affected thinking about the structure and purpose of U.S. higher education.  Junior colleges first appeared in the decade of the 1900s, but multiplied in the 1920s.  In the summer of 1948, Jesse P. Bogue, Executive Secretary for the American Association of Junior Colleges, addressed faculty in an essay titled, “The Community College,” for the bulletin of the American Association of University Professors discussing the origin of the community college. He shared:

It was William Rainey Harper, first President of the University of Chicago, who crystallized general concepts and gave inspiration for the establishment of the first public junior college in 1902 at Joliet, Illinois.  Although Decatur Baptist College, Decatur, Texas, celebrated its half-century of existence in 1947, Joliet is the oldest public junior college operating today.  President Harper is regarded as the man who coined the name ‘junior college’ and is considered by educational historians generally as the father of the movement.  This is most certain true in the sense that his organizing genius was applied to the concept and that he really did something about it. (Bogue, 1948, p. 286)

Following the establishment of Joliet, there was a proliferation of junior colleges within the U.S. that continued to multiply over the next several decades (Geiger, 1999).  Junior colleges, along with other institutional types such as teachers’ colleges, municipal colleges, women’s colleges, and business schools, provided educational opportunities to students and appealed to widely diverse student populations (Geiger, 1999).  Recognized as “booster colleges,” the development of the two-year “junior college” came of age predominantly in the West and Midwest between World War I and World War II (Thelin, 2004, p. 206).  By 1930, six states had ten or more public junior colleges:  California, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Kansas (Brint & Karabel, 1989).

Between 1940 and the Mid-1970’s

Cohen (1998) defines the period between 1945 and 1975 as the Mass Higher Education Era and noted within those 30 years enrollments grew by more than 500%.  Also, public community colleges increased enrollments from two million to five million (Cohen, 1998).  In 1940, 60% of the community college student population was male, and by 1950, enrollments temporarily increased to 70% due to veterans returning home to attend community colleges (Cohen, 1998).  In 1944, Congress introduced Public Law 346, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, also called “the G.I. Bill of Rights,” which passed by a Congress fearful of mass unemployment when millions of servicemen were demobilized (Cohen, 1998, p. 182).

The G.I. Bill 

The G.I. Bill built upon smaller federal student aid programs developed at the end of the Great Depression and represented the federal government’s first attempt to provide student aid on a large scale.  This effort helped to break down the economic and social barriers to attending college (Vaughan, 2000).  Under the G.I. Bill, any honorably discharged veteran who had served 90 days or was injured in the line of duty was entitled to a free college education up to four years.  The government would pay $500 per year for tuition, fees and books at any approved education institution.  This resulted in over 2.2 million veterans returning to college, 3.4 million in other schools, 1.4 million in on-job training, and 690,000 in farm training, resulting in 40% of veterans who received a higher education.  Thelin (2011) wrote

By the fall of 1945, eighty-eight thousand veterans had applied and been accepted for participation.  By 1946, GI Bill college enrollments surpassed one million, and total benefits paid out by the federal government as part of the act exceeded $5.5 billion.  By 1950, of the fourteen million eligible veterans, more than two million, or 16 percent, had opted to enroll in postsecondary education as part of the GI Bill. (p. 263)

Thelin (2011) added that while the GI Bill enhanced postsecondary education opportunities for modest-income veterans, the terms of the GI Bill carried no requirement that participating institutions demonstrate non-discrimination (Thelin, 2011). One notable feature of the program was the benefits were awarded to individuals rather than institutions, allowing veterans to use them for any educational or training programs to which they were accepted (Turner & Bound, 2003).

The Truman Commission 

In July 1946, as the end of World War II drew near, President Harry S. Truman appointed the first official body to examine expansion of enrollments in American colleges and universities.  The President’s Commission on Higher Education, also known as “The Truman Commission,” was composed of a group of 28 educators led by George F. Zook, President of the American Council on Education, and was charged to address federal higher education policies, reexamine the roles of colleges and universities and develop a national dialogue on higher education reform.  The significant feature of this endeavor was that it marked the first time a president of the United States deliberately extended federal inquiry into nationwide educational issues; the Tenth Amendment of the United States Constitution customarily reserved the topic for state and local government (Thelin, 2011).

The Truman Commission’s report contained six volumes and appeared between December 1947 and February 1948, under the general title, Higher Education for American Democracy.  This series was viewed as one of the most influential documents in the history of American higher education.  The primary focus of the Commission was to address barriers to educational opportunities in two key areas: 1) improving college access and equity and 2) expanding the role of community colleges (Gilbert & Heller, 2013).   Community colleges were a primary strategy in the Commission’s plans to increase higher educational access to increased populations.  Approximately 600 two-year colleges existed during the time the Truman Commission report was released (Quigley & Bailey, 2003).

Brubacher and Rudy (1968) contend the Truman Commission’s central message was to ensure every American should be “enabled and encouraged to carry his education, formal and informal, as far as his native capacities permit” (p. 239).  The authors stated community colleges were particularly appealing as a means of handling student expansion because two-year colleges could be constructed quickly and were generally viewed as being more cost effective.  The Commission proposed the nation double its enrollment in college and universities within a decade (Brubacher & Rudy, 1968).

The Commission addressed open access in the report’s preface and noted the increasing number of young people seeking a college education and highlighted the complexities offered by increased industrialization and the accelerated enrollment growth due to the enactment of the Veteran’s Rehabilitation Act and the G.I. Bill.  The Commission noted, “Statistics reveal that a doubling of the 1947-48 enrollments in colleges and universities will be entirely possible within 10 to 15 years, if facilities and financial means are provided” (The President’s Commission on Higher Education, 1947, Volume 1, p. 1).

The Truman Commission recognized a variety of barriers – geographical, racial, religious, socioeconomic – might prevent populations from pursuing higher education.  Since costs presented access and equity barriers to students, the Commission’s report emphasized the importance of eradicating these barriers, stating, “If college opportunities are restricted to those in the higher income brackets, the way is open to the creation and perpetuation of a class society which has no place in the American way of life” (The President’s Commission on Higher Education, 1947, Volume II, p. 23).

The commissioners provided advocacy for expanded construction of community colleges and a larger influx of student enrollment growth in future years.  Reuben and Perkins (2007) noted commissioners lobbied for a number of policies that would become important features of American higher education in the late twentieth century, including the expansion of public higher education, particularly two-year institutions which the Commission renamed “community colleges” rather than “junior colleges,” federal financial aid programs, and the end to discrimination based on religion and race (pp. 265-266).  The Commission’s report offered specific recommendations to increase higher education attainment from 2.4 million students in 1947 to 3.9 to 4.6 million students between 1952 and 1960. Approximately one million veterans were anticipated to return to college under the G.I. Bill and the Commission made a series of recommendations to increase enrollments (Gilbert & Heller, 2013, p. 420).  

Improving college access

Improving community college access to underserved groups, such as minorities and veterans, continued throughout the 1960’s.  Before the 1960’s, at least 20 major cities (including Denver, St. Louis, Cleveland, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Miami) did not have community colleges and diverse populations were actively seeking college access (Luskin, 2011).  By the 1960’s, there was a general sentiment that college should become a birthright for Americans, much like high school had become a birthright in the 1920’s (Cervantes, Creusere, McMillion, McQueen, Short, Steiner & Webster, 2005).

Federal programs 

The Federal government created direct programming and financial assistance to postsecondary students that sparked national discussions on the government’s role within higher education.  Dallek (1998) asserted President Johnson had an almost mystical faith in the capacity of education to transform people’s lives.  Public demands for social equality helped to facilitate federal support for financial support of higher education. Federal programs were established and college attendance soared prompting a national shift in America’s college student demographics.  These federal programs offered college access to disadvantaged populations and assisted underrepresented minorities with college preparatory skills.

The Higher Education Act (HEA)

The Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, offered financial assistance to public and private colleges and eligible students under Title IV.  The HEA of 1965 established the Federal government as an important player in higher education policy and recognized the goal of removing college price barriers as a federal priority (Cervantes et al., 2005).

According to a national report, “Higher Education Act: Forty Years of Opportunity,” Title IV authorized federal aid to students seeking higher education and assisted low-income students (Cervantes et al., 2005).  The leading HEA grant program was the Educational Opportunity Grant, later renamed the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, or SEOG.  The Guaranteed Student Loan program, later recognized as the Federal Family Education Loan program (FFEL), was the largest source of student financial aid in the country (Cervantes et al., 2005). Additional financial aid assistance programs designed to increase open access include federal work-study programs, National Teaching Fellowships and the National Defense Student Loan Program, now known as Perkins funding.

The HEA was amended under Title IV to create three federal programs: Upward Bound, Talent Search and Student Support Services; hence the phrase “TRIO” emerged.  These TRIO programs assist low-income students, first-generation college students and other underrepresented groups through tutoring, mentoring and bridge programs.  President Johnson was recognized for clarifying the role of the Federal Government “to do something for the people who are down and out, and that’s where its major energy in education ought to go” (Cervantes et al., 2005, p. 22).

Civil Rights and Women’s Equality Movements 

In tandem, the civil rights and women’s equality movements increased social awareness and helped break down barriers for disadvantaged groups (Vaughn, 2000).   While these federal measures were established within the historical legislative framework of higher education, men and women of color continued to experience racial disparity and inequity while pursuing access to higher education.

Open Door Policies

Community college’s open-door policies offered increased access to higher education for diverse populations impacted by social class, race, gender and ethnicity.  Edmund Gleazer’s (1994) foreword in America’s Community Colleges: The First Century notes, “The college that cuts “across” ethnic lines, socioeconomic classes, educational interests, geographical boundaries and generations brings people together so that not only their differences, but also their common interest and needs can be acknowledged and valued” (Witt, Wattenbarger, Gollattscheck, & Suppiger, 1994, p. xvi).

In the late 1960’s, colleges and universities experienced decreased admission of academically prepared students.  Universities chose to soften admission requirements and increased financial assistance for eligible students.  At the same time, community colleges offered open door admissions to attract students and increase enrollments (Cohen & Brawer, 2003).


Carnegie Commission on Higher Education

In 1970, the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education issued a three-part series report titled, “The Open-Door Colleges: Policies for Community Colleges” highlighting the role of community colleges.  The first section, released in June 1970, focused on the Federal Government’s role in advocating for academic success and increasing educational opportunities.  The second series highlighted higher education policy to ensure racial and educational equality.  The third series discussed the role of community colleges and presented enrollment projections for two-year institutions with projections for future community college expansion in 1980 and 2000.

Brint and Karabel (1989) contended the Carnegie Commission’s report was modeled after an existing trend, “Californiaization” of American higher education and recognized the California Master Plan of 1960 as a landmark in the evolution of community colleges.  By the time the Carnegie Commission’s report went to press, there were over 1,000 two-year colleges throughout the United States.  In 1968, ten states comprised 30% or more of all undergraduates enrolled in two-year colleges.  Other states’ enrollment varied from 10% to 30% and in seven states, California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Texas and Washington, enrollments were 30% or higher (The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, 1970, map 1, p. 14).

The Carnegie Commission’s goals addressed national expansion of college access within each high school.  The Commission clarified that college attainment might not include individuals who did not have plans to go to college, but universal access for all high school graduates or persons over 18 years of age was highly recommended.  The Commission report stated without such open admissions policies, community colleges would not provide equal opportunity to the highest degree possible.

The Commission’s report outlined goals and recommendations to be completed by 1976:

  • Open access to all public community colleges
  • The removal of financial barriers to enrollment
  • A state plan for the development of community colleges in every state
  • Comprehensive programs that provide meaningful learning options in all public two-year institutions of higher education.
  • Achievement of the goal of a community college within commuting distance of every potential student, except in sparsely populated areas where residential colleges are needed – plans for 230 to 280 new community colleges initiated by 1976
  • Low tuition or no tuition in community colleges
  • Adaptation of occupational programs to changing manpower requirements and full
    opportunities for continuing adult education (The Carnegie Commission on Higher
    Education, 1970, p. 51)

The success of the Carnegie Commission’s goals required support and advocacy of federal aid to higher education and increased national funding.  Ten-year recommendations goals outlined establishment of additional community colleges and to ensure 35% to 45% of all undergraduate student enrollment (The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, 1970).  Twenty-year recommendations outlined continued community college expansion, additional increases for student enrollments and ongoing curriculum reform to adapt to economic development and community needs in the 21st century (The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, 1970).


Through the early decades of the twentieth century, two-year colleges provided access and opened pathways for diverse groups including veterans, women, minority groups, individuals and families facing economic challenges.  Between 1940 and the mid-1970’s, social influences advocating for select groups, federal legislation, and governmental programs were viewed as beacons to ensure access of higher education for underserved groups.   These influences were instrumental in widening the doors of two-year institutions to a greater number of people seeking educational access.  Today, community colleges continue the tradition of opening doors to underserved populations and remain at the forefront of national dialogue on the expansion and accessibility of higher education.  Open access in community colleges continues to provide underrepresented students with educational resources to assist in short and long-term skill building and degree attainment.

Discussion Questions

  1. How have other federal and social influences shaped higher education, particularly for two-year colleges?
  2. From your perspective, what are some of the benefits of two-year colleges and open admissions?  Have the educational needs of community college students changed within the last ten years?  How has your institution’s original mission adapted to the needs of today’s college students?
  3. In general, do two-year colleges serve the same role as early junior colleges?  Why or why not?

About the Author

Deborah L. Anderson is the Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Institutional Research at Ivy Tech Community College – Southwest/Wabash Valley Region.  A three-time graduate of the University of Kansas, she holds a B.A. in Italian Studies, a B.S. in Journalism, and a M.S. in Education.  She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Higher Education Leadership at the Bayh School of Education at Indiana State University.  Deb serves on the ACPA Commission for Two-Year Colleges and Wiley’s Enrollment Management Report Board of Advisors.

Please e-mail inquiries to Deborah L. Anderson


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.


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