The Origin of California's Community Colleges

By Larry Galizio, Ph.D.
President & CEO, Community College League of California 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

After watching the Assembly Chamber unanimously pass ACR 31 (with 67 co-authors signing on to the resolution) recognizing April 2019 as California Community College Month, I was reminded of just how far community colleges in California have advanced from their origins as extensions of K-12 school districts in the first decade of the 20th century.

In the present time, we hear a great deal about acceleration, the rapidity of change, and the necessity of institutions and people to adapt or die. And while it is essential for the survival of California’s community colleges to adapt to changing demographics, technologies, and the ever-increasing demands on our districts and colleges, our survival also depends upon an understanding of the evolution and history of the largest confederation of public higher education institutions in the U.S.

In recognition of the importance of knowing and communicating the history of California Community Colleges (CCC), the League has embarked upon a project to capture its history: A College for all Californians: The History of California Community Colleges. This effort consists of three elements: 1) an interactive timeline; 2) interviews with individuals who have contributed significantly to the evolution of the CCC; and 3) a forthcoming book chronicling this over 100-year history.

As we celebrate April as California Community College Month, below are just a few of the more important milestones from our research on the origins of California’s community colleges. These excerpts are largely from the work of Dr. George Boggs, Superintendent/President Emeritus, Palomar College, co-author of the forthcoming book on the history of California Community Colleges.

Although there were some two-year institutions in the late 1890s, most historians point to the founding of Joliet Junior College in Joliet High School, outside of Chicago, as the first sustained public community college. The experimental postgraduate high school program was the brainchild of J. Stanley Brown, Superintendent of Joliet Township High School, and William Rainey Harper, President of the University of Chicago. The junior college may have started in Illinois, but it was California that provided the leadership for its expansion. Visionaries in California laid much of the groundwork for what would become the largest sector of public higher education in California and throughout the nation—the community college.

As in Illinois, the key advocates were university administrators. In particular, Alexis F. Lange, Dean of the School of Education at the University of California at Berkeley, and David Starr Jordan, President of Stanford University, played leading roles. Lange and Jordan were motivated not only by nationalistic economic concerns, but also by the desire to improve the status of their own institutions. Both believed that junior colleges would eventually assume all lower division teaching functions, thereby enabling them to drop freshman and sophomore instruction. Such a division would enable the universities to concentrate on upper-division studies, graduate programs, and research

As early as 1892, the University of California advocated for the idea that the first two years of university belonged to secondary education

By 1900, Stanford University, the University of Southern California, and the University of California at Berkeley were the three most significant higher education institutions in the state. Yet, access to these three institutions became more difficult as they expanded to other regions of the state.

In the early 1900s, the California Constitution defined membership of the California Board of Education to include the Governor, the President of the University of California, the principals of the state Normal Schools, and the Director of the Department of Education at Berkeley. In 1907, Lang occupied the strategic position as chairman of the board and was able to work with Senator Anthony Caminetti to draft the Upward Extension Law, enabling high schools to offer postgraduate classes (Gallagher, 1994, p. 5). The 1907 California Upward Extension Act was the first state law in the country that authorized the establishment of junior colleges.

In gaining support for the Upward Extension bill, Senator Caminetti emphasized geographical considerations. If local high schools added two years of work, students could stay at home and save money, and parents could supervise their children until they were more mature (Gallagher, 1994, p. 6).

The first California junior college to be established under the 1907 Upward Extension Law was at Fresno High School in 1910, when the Fresno Board of Education opened the Collegiate Department of Fresno High School—later named Fresno City College (Boggs & Cater, 1994, p. 220). 

California, the leading state in the development of the junior college in both size of student body and number of colleges, is the first state to have a law which established public junior colleges. This law of 1907, proposed by Senator Anthony Caminetti of Amador County, permitted high schools to offer post-high school instruction. It was very brief and reads as follows:

The board of trustees of any city, district, union, joint union, or county high school may prescribe postgraduate courses of study for the graduates of such high school, or other high schools, which courses of study shall approximate the studies prescribed in the first two years of university courses. The board of trustees of any city, district, union, joint union, or county high school 'wherein the postgraduate courses are taught may charge tuition for pupils living without the boundaries of the district wherein such courses are taught.

In fall 1910, Fresno High School began offering classes in English, mathematics, history, Latin, economics, modern language, and technical courses to prepare students for employment in agriculture or local industry. Twenty-eight students enrolled in classes for the first term (Bogue, 1950, p. 86). With the assistance of Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, a principal and faculty were chosen. However, as Gallagher points out, the college classes were financed out of the high school budget, and high school teachers taught them (1994, p. 10). It was also common in the early days of the development of junior colleges for high school principals or superintendents to be principals of the junior college at the same time (Frye, 1992, p. 90). Although the classes were designed for high school graduates, many of the first junior college students were high school students taking college courses (Gallagher, 1994, p. 10).

U.C. Berkeley agreed to accept coursework completed at Fresno as if the work had been done at the University of California and without the necessity of any examinations. Within five years, Fresno’s post diploma student body had risen from fifteen to 115. Courses were free to residents of the school district; nonresidents paid a tuition charge of $4.00 a month (Witt, Wattenbarger, Gollattscheck, & Supinger, 1994, pp. 37 & 38).

Fresno High School’s principal, A. C. Olney, transferred to Santa Barbara High School in 1911 and established the state’s second junior college under the 1907 Upward Extension Law. The following year, junior colleges opened in Hollywood and Los Angeles. In 1913, Bakersfield, Fullerton, and Long Beach developed junior colleges. Over the next four years, Azusa, Placer, Sacramento, Chaffey, Riverside, and Santa Ana had authorized their own junior colleges. By the fall of 1917, California had sixteen junior colleges. The largest of the colleges, and probably the largest public junior college in America, was at Los Angeles City High School, with 520 students. By the end of the decade, California had created the most extensive community college system in the nation (Witt, Wattenbarger, Gollattscheck, & Supinger, 1994, p. 38).