Tennessee's system of community colleges traces its origins to the 1955-57 study Public Higher Education in Tennessee undertaken by the legislative council of the Tennessee General Assembly and directed by Truman Pierce and A. D. Albright. The study outlined fundamental changes in the state's postwar economy and population distribution, including the rapid increase in wealth brought about by industrial development, a decline in the importance of agriculture, and the associated shift in population from rural to urban areas. As a result of these changes, an increasing number of students sought post-secondary education, particularly in technical fields. While a substantial portion of the population lived within fifty miles of one of the state-supported colleges or universities, there were several exceptions, most notably in the Chattanooga, Columbia-Pulaski, and Jackson areas. The study concluded that a need existed for the creation of three new colleges in these areas. Though the study apparently anticipated the establishment of four-year institutions, by the time the development of the new colleges got underway, sentiment had shifted to the creation of two-year community colleges as a result of pressure from communities seeking such institutions, the concerns of existing colleges and universities, and federal funding programs enacted in the early 1960s.
In 1963 Governor Frank G. Clement and new State Commissioner of Education J. Howard Warf determined that it was time to act. The legislature funded a $100,000 per annum appropriation to study the feasibility of establishing community colleges and initiate preliminary planning. In 1964 the committee–T. M. Divine of Kingsport, Dale F. Glover of Obion County, Mrs. B. A. McDermott of Nashville, J. Frank Taylor of Huntingdon, and Edward L. Jennings of Liberty–recommended proceeding with the construction of a two-year college in the Columbia area. The committee foresaw a multi-purpose college that would permit the transfer of course credits to four-year institutions and provide vocational-technical programs, community services, and continuing adult education.
In February 1965 the State Board of Education adopted the committee recommendations to establish three two-year colleges, one in each of the three grand divisions. The program began with a $4 million construction grant and a $500,000 operational grant. Community groups across the state waged campaigns to gain approval for a college in their towns. In order to provide an orderly process for determining potential sites, the state established strict requirements for all applicants. A city or county must make a one-time contribution of $250,000 for construction and provide one hundred acres or more for the building site, plus utilities. The criteria established a fundamental relationship between local and state support for the colleges. In June 1965 the State Board of Education named three sites: Cleveland, Columbia, and Jackson.
The colleges created by these efforts were state-funded (aside from the initial community contribution) and charged modest fees for coursework, making higher education more readily available to a wider range of students. Educational planners envisioned the creation of teaching institutions that would be accredited under the standards of the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The schools would award associate degrees and certificates, employ regular faculty with at least a master's degree, maintain an open admissions policy, and conduct day and evening classes year-round. The colleges were called “community colleges” rather than “junior colleges” to emphasize the partnership between state and local efforts.
Columbia State Community College enrolled 393 students in the fall of 1966 and held classes in a variety of locations, including the First Baptist Church and an old post office. The winter semester enrollment climbed to 538. On March 15, 1967, the First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, accompanied by her husband, President Lyndon Johnson, dedicated the campus. Dr. Harold S. Pryor became the first president of Columbia State. The fall 2000 enrollment was 4,261.
Cleveland State Community College opened in the fall of 1967 with 681 students and held classes in the educational building of the North Cleveland Baptist Church until construction of the campus could be completed. Winter quarter classes began on the new campus with an enrollment of 766. Dr. D. F. Adkisson served as the first president of Cleveland State. The fall 2000 enrollment was 3,059.
Jackson State Community College opened in September 1967, with Dr. Francis E. Wright as president. The expected enrollment of 400 mushroomed to 640 students from twenty-one counties, an indication of the popularity of community colleges. Jackson State has expanded to a fall 2000 enrollment of 3,726.
In 1967 three additional sites were added to the list of community colleges. Dyersburg State opened in 1969 with an enrollment of 588, which grew to 2,278 in 2000. Dr. Edward B. Eller served as the first president. In 1969 Motlow State Community College opened in Tullahoma under the leadership of Dr. Sam H. Ingram. The initial enrollment of 551 has since grown to 3,331 in 2000. Walters State Community College in Hamblen County enrolled 414 students when it opened in 1970. Dr. James W. Clark served as the first president. The fall 2000 enrollment reached 6,163.
In 1969 the State Board of Education approved the creation of three more community colleges in Roane, Sumner, and Shelby Counties, bringing the total number of two-year institutions to nine. Dr. Hall Reed Ramer, president, opened Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin in 1971 with an enrollment of 581 students from Sumner and eleven surrounding counties. The college moved onto its permanent campus on U.S. Highway 31E in the winter of 1972. Vol State's 2000 enrollment was 6,567. Dr. Cuyler A. Dunbar became the first president of Roane State Community College, which opened at Harriman in 1971 with an enrollment of 323. Students met in temporary classrooms until the fall quarter of 1973. The 2000 enrollment reached 5,099.
Shelby State Community College did not enroll students until fall 1972 and opened amid controversy over the direction of higher education. President Jess H. Parish promoted the school to area citizens as a multi-campus, comprehensive institution. The multi-campus aspect of the college complicated the issue of the community appropriation of $250,000 and land for construction of a campus. The campus finally located on one hundred acres of land on the Shelby County Penal Farm in east Memphis, with a second site in the mid-city area. Desegregation suits challenged the proposal of building two simultaneous sites, causing delays in construction. The college opened in temporary quarters at the old Veterans Hospital and enrolled nearly 1,000 students in September 1972. In 1999 state officials combined the Shelby State Community College and the State Technical Institute at Memphis into a new community college named Southwest Tennessee Community College. It began operations in July 2000 and its initial fall enrollment that year was 12,194.
Chattanooga State Technical Community College opened in 1965 as Chattanooga State Technical Institute, the first technical institute in the state, as well as the first state-supported institution of post-secondary education in Chattanooga. The institute moved to its present site on the Tennessee River in 1967. The 1974-75 academic year marked the beginning of the college parallel program at Chattanooga State, enrolling approximately 150 students. The 2000 enrollment was 7,873.
Pellissippi State Technical Community College in Knoxville and Northeast State Technical Community College in the Tri-Cities area also trace their origins to technical institutes, and both institutions made the change to community college status in 1988. Pellissippi State operates on three campuses and recorded a combined 2000 enrollment of 7,859. Northeast State's 2000 enrollment was 4,125. The Nashville State Technical Institute opened in West Nashville in 1970; its 2000 enrollment was 7,315.
The State Area Vocational Technical Schools were transferred from the state Department of Education in 1963 and became part of the State University and Community College System governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents when the system was created in 1972. In 1994 the names of these twenty-six schools were changed to the Tennessee Technology Centers. Enrollment in fall 2000 at all of the Technology Centers was 35,099.
From the visions of educators of the 1950s and 1960s, the reality of the community college system has provided Tennesseans with expanded opportunities for higher education, continuing adult education, and the acquisition of technical skills to remain competitive in the changing job market.