Great challenges faced the United States in the early 20th century, including global economic competition. National and local leaders realized that a more skilled workforce was key to the country's continued economic strength—a need that called for a dramatic increase in college attendance—yet three-quarters of high school graduates were choosing not to further their education, in part because they were reluctant to leave home for a distant college.
During the same period, the country's rapidly growing public high schools were seeking new ways to serve their communities. It was common for them to add a teacher institute, manual learning (vocational education) division, or citizenship school to the diploma program. The high school-based community college, as first developed at Central High School in Joliet, Illinois, was the most successful type of addition. Meanwhile, small, private colleges such as Indiana's Vincennes University had fashioned an effective model of higher education grounded on the principles of small classes, close student-faculty relations and a program that included both academics and extracurricular activities.
From the combination of these traditions emerged the earliest community colleges, roughly balanced in number between private and public control but united in their commitment to meet local needs. The typical early community college was small, rarely enrolling more than 150 students. It nevertheless offered a program of solid academics as well as a variety of student activities. Fort Scott Junior College in Kansas, for example, not only fielded several athletic teams but also supported a student newspaper, government, thespian society, and orchestra.
A distinctive feature of the institutions was their accessibility to women, attributable to the leading role the colleges played in preparing grammar school teachers. In such states as Missouri, which did not yet require K-8 teachers to have a bachelor's degree, it was common for more than 60 percent of community college students to be women, virtually all of them preparing to be teachers.