In her bid for the White House, Hillary Clinton is lavishing attention on community colleges. She met with groups of community college students in both of the early caucus and primary states -- Iowa and New Hampshire -- and during those roundtables, Clinton sang the praises of how community colleges give a new generation of students skills to succeed in a changing job market.
At a session with students and teachers at NHTI-Concord’s Community College on April 21, 2015, she said, "The United States invented the community college. Nobody else had ever done anything like it." She added, "I really support President Obama's effort to try to raise the visibility and to try to make it even more affordable for more people" to go to community college.
This echoed comments she made in a visit a few days earlier to Kirkwood Community College in Monticello, Iowa. In a roundtable event with students, Clinton told her Iowa audience that "community colleges" are a "uniquely American invention ... something nobody else in the world did."
We wondered if Clinton was correct that the United States was a trailblazer in this regard. So we checked with a number of historians of American education, and, despite a few quibbles, they agreed that Clinton was basically right.
The experts we checked with said the idea for community colleges first emerged in 1901, when Central High School in Joliet, Ill., established a program to academically parallel the first two years of a four-year college or university. It was geared toward students who had graduated from high school and who wished to pursue a college education but didn’t want to leave their hometown. The program in Joliet was officially renamed Joliet Junior College in 1916 (and it still exists). While some of this new class of institutions were private, community colleges are largely public today.
"It's fair to say that the U.S. was the first place to try to combine terminal vocational training with education intended to lead to transfer to a four-year school," said David Bills, an education professor at the University of Iowa. "It wasn't exactly invented out of thin air, and it evolved in part from vocational high schools, but it was a self-consciously distinctive institutional development."
We heard two quibbles with Clinton’s comment, and they are minor.
• Clinton’s terminology is slightly off. For a half century or more, the institutions in question were called "junior colleges," rather than "community colleges" -- the term Clinton used at both events. The term "community college" emerged from a 1947 report by President Harry Truman’s Commission on Higher Education.
The commission’s report said, "The name used does not matter, though community college seems to describe these schools best; the important thing is that the services they perform be recognized and vastly extended."
While some institutions still call themselves "junior colleges," the name "community college" gained widespread use beginning in the 1960s, said Roger L. Geiger, education professor at Penn State and author of The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II.
"It was the junior college, especially the public junior college, that was the distinctive American institutional invention," rather than the "community college" per se, said John R. Thelin, a professor at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education.
• Other types of institutions, both in the United States and in other countries, shared aspects of the community college. The best example is the system of vocational education that’s common in parts of Europe, especially Germany. This system "has a much, much longer history, since it comes out of the apprenticeship system of the trade guilds from medieval times on forward," said Margaret O'Mara, historian at the University of Washington and author of Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley.
A key difference between the two, Geiger said, is that community colleges in the United States bestowed university credits and encouraged students to enroll in traditional universities for their third and fourth years.
Despite some similarities with European systems, "the U.S. community college system is basically a unique organizational structure — part of the nation’s rich mix of postsecondary institutions," said Christopher Loss, a public policy and higher education professor at Vanderbilt University.
Clinton said "the United States invented the community college. Nobody else had ever done anything like it." This is largely correct, though Clinton’s terminology could have been more precise. Also, other types of institutions in Europe share characteristics of community colleges. Still, the specific U.S. system is was an innovation. On balance, we rate her claim Mostly True.