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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