Telling the stories of female community college pioneers

By Anne-Marie McCartan

Women were hugely influential in shaping the community college movement. Now they’re being remembered.

Last year, Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race and the movie version captured America’s attention. But did you know that the community college movement has its own female pioneers who changed the course of our history?

More than 10 years ago, I set out to discover the contributions of women whose names I rarely came across when reading books on our history. I focused on the “growth years” for community colleges, from the release of the Truman Commission on Higher Education report in 1947 through 1990.

What I discovered was truly remarkable: Sixteen women stood out during that period for the singular contributions they made to the movement, and they left their mark on virtually every aspect of our enterprise: teaching, student services, nursing education, the transfer function, women’s leadership development and so on. To document the impact they had, I interviewed more than 50 people and analyzed documents and publications.

Unexpected Influence: Women Who Helped Shape the Early Community College Movement came out this winter. The chapters on the 16 women profiled describe both the contributions each made and their personal backgrounds. Some of the accounts tell how:

  • A doctoral student decides to use her experience as a former nurse to design a curriculum to train nurses in two years — in an educational rather than hospital setting, which was the norm in the 1940s. The national community college association, searching to expand the scope of junior-college education beyond pre-transfer course, provides backing to her to take this idea nationally. By the time the pilot project is completed in 1956, 40 two-year colleges have started preparing students for careers in nursing. Today, more than half of the candidates for nursing licensure are products of community colleges.
  • By the early 1960s, those in community colleges were convinced that two-year colleges should be taken seriously as a path to the baccalaureate. Yet armed with little other than anecdotal evidence to back their claims, they were finding few believers outside their circle. But when two researchers at a higher-education think tank at UC Berkeley published a study tracking 7,000 students transferring from two- to four-year colleges, their assertions were validated. The study found that 62 percent achieved the baccalaureate degree within three years after transferring. For the next four decades, the research produced by the female author of this study continued to be among the most respected quantitative look at student behavior in community colleges.
  • Despite the huge number of women working in all capacities in community colleges in the 1980s, only 21 out of some 1,000 presidents were female. Two women with distinctly different backgrounds paired up to create and run a leadership-development program to help women move up the ranks to the presidency. Believing that women needed separate training, strategies and assistance to counteract gender discrimination, these women crisscrossed the country for eight years offering workshops to thousands of promising women leaders in community colleges—many who went on to become presidents.

One powerful lesson I learned from writing this book was that when we speak of leaders and leadership, sometimes you need to dig deeper than simply seeing who has a prestigious administrative title after their name. None of these women sought fame or fortune. What they had in common was that each grasped the potential for what community colleges could be, they saw a way to apply their talents to this end, and they made good things happen.

Note: The author will be signing books April 23 in the exhibit hall at the AACC Annual Convention.

Anne-Marie McCartan

Anne-Marie McCartan worked in higher education for 40 years, many of those with community colleges at the campus and state-policy levels.