By early 21st century, nearly 11 percent of the Mississippi population was educated in some way in the state’s public community and junior colleges. Educational activities included university-track academic classes, training in career and technical skills, workforce education directed toward specific jobs, adult basic education, community enrichment courses, and test preparation for the general equivalency diploma, or GED.
Notably, the main campuses of the colleges are located in small towns instead of cities, with the lone exception of Meridian Community College, which, when founded in 1937, was also the only school that did not begin as an agricultural high school.
A movement to offer the first two years of college courses in separate schools—“junior” colleges—began in the United States in 1901. In that year a high school in Peoria, Illinois, began offering college-level courses to a few of its students who could transfer the work to the University of Chicago. The experiment proved successful, and by 1917 junior colleges had been established in Illinois, California, Texas, Iowa, and several other states. Almost all junior colleges were either high schools that offered college courses to qualified students, or small four-year colleges that dropped their third and fourth years of study.
Agricultural high schools
Mississippi’s involvement in the junior college movement was unplanned and unexpected. As the junior college movement spread across the United States in the early 1900s, Mississippi was primarily rural, agricultural, undereducated, and segregated by race. Towns sometimes provided adequate schools through the high school level, but rural children had few opportunities for education. This was largely because good roads were almost nonexistent and few people owned automobiles. Rural schools were usually one-room, wooden frame structures with one teacher, a few books, students of ages from six to sixteen, and an outhouse. Outside of larger towns, few schools for African American students existed at all.
To provide for rural students, the Mississippi Legislature passed laws in 1908 that allowed counties to establish agricultural high schools. The original law specified the schools would be established for White students, but after legal review, the language was changed in 1910 to “white and Negro” students in order to comply with the U. S. Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that allowed states to have segregated facilities as long as they were “separate but equal.”
The agricultural high schools were to have dormitories for boys and girls and were to stress education in agriculture for boys and home economics for girls. However, they were also to offer a full curriculum of “regular” academic courses including English, history, mathematics, and science. The idea proved popular — fifty-one agricultural high schools were in operation in the state by 1921. All were in relatively small towns or rural areas. The schools did not charge tuition, but did charge room and board to dormitory students. At Hinds County Agricultural High School in 1918, for example, room and board was $10 per month, but students could earn money by working on the school farm or on campus.
Creation of junior colleges
By the 1920s, however, many agricultural high schools were in trouble. In 1916, the legislature had passed laws that allowed any two or more schools in towns or rural areas to “consolidate,” or combine their operations. This was made possible by the revolution in transportation brought about by affordable automobiles and improved roads. Students who only a few years earlier had to live within walking distance of schools now had the opportunity to attend larger and better schools at greater distances. The new consolidated schools also were required to provide bus transportation for students who lived more than two miles away. For the agricultural high schools, this meant declining enrollments because many rural students had access to more convenient consolidated schools. No agricultural high schools were established for White students after 1919 and two had closed by 1923. Some had to close their doors entirely, while others faced at least closing their dormitories.
Some state leaders in education, especially Robert E. Lee Sutherland of Hinds County Agricultural High School and James A. Huff of Pearl River County Agricultural High School, saw a solution to the problems of the agricultural high schools with a dual benefit: allow “qualified” agricultural high schools to offer college classes and become combined agricultural high schools and junior colleges. This would keep enrollments up and also enable rural students to take college courses that they would otherwise not have access to.
Spearheading this effort in the Mississippi Legislature was Julius Christian Zeller of Yazoo County. In 1922, Zeller introduced a bill into the Mississippi Senate that quickly became law. According to this legislation, to prevent competition with senior colleges, a qualifying agricultural high school had to be at least twenty miles from the University of Mississippi at Oxford, Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Mississippi State University) at Starkville, Mississippi State College for Women at Columbus, and Mississippi Normal College (now the University of Southern Mississippi) at Hattiesburg. The 1922 law further spelled out qualifications for teachers, entrance requirements for students, and library standards. (Zeller also later introduced legislation to merge the University of Mississippi, Mississippi A&M, and MSCW at a single location near Jackson.)
The junior colleges were to provide a quality, accessible, and inexpensive education for the state’s students. In 1928, for example, the junior colleges did not charge tuition to in-county students but charged small fees to students from other counties. Hinds Junior College charged $4 per month for out-of-county students in 1928. All students were guaranteed work on the school farm or on campus at a rate of 15 cents per hour.
State system is established
Pearl River Agricultural High School in Poplarville and Hinds County Agricultural High School in Raymond offered college freshman level courses in the fall semester of 1922. (Pearl River had actually offered college courses in 1921, before the enabling legislation.) In 1925, Pearl River added the sophomore year of college with Hinds following the next year. At the beginning of 1928, ten Mississippi agricultural high schools were offering at least one year of college courses and two more were scheduled to do so in the fall of that year. Enrollments totaled 818 students with Hinds and Pearl River having 150 students each. Perkinston (now Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College) enrolled 124, while newly organized East Central Community College had 24 students. The junior college idea was proving so popular that at least twenty-five more agricultural high schools were pushing to become junior colleges in the near future. Mississippi then faced the danger of having too many junior colleges to properly support them.
Knox M. Broom saw a solution. As Mississippi’s supervisor of agricultural high schools and junior colleges, Broom pushed for laws to limit the number of junior colleges in the state. Broom and other junior college leaders also wanted to establish a state commission to coordinate activities at the junior colleges. Broom got his wish in 1928 when the legislature passed laws creating a Commission of Junior Colleges and also gave a small appropriation of state money to the junior colleges. The next year the new commission divided the state into thirteen junior college districts. There could be only one junior college in each. This ensured that there would be a manageable number of schools, that there would be enough students for each school, and that there would be adequate funding for each.
These three things—establishing the State Commission of Junior Colleges, providing state funds to junior colleges, and dividing the state into junior college districts—meant that Mississippi had established the first state system of junior colleges in the United States. Today’s system of Mississippi community and junior colleges grew directly out of this arrangement. (A complete list of the state’s community colleges and their date of establishment is included at the end of this article.)
After 1928 the Mississippi junior college system grew rapidly. Total enrollments the next year alone were 1,248, an increase of 66 percent. In 1934 the junior colleges registered 3,185 students, and in 1940 more than 4,000. Enrollments were approximately 300,000 in early 21st century.
The junior college system expanded its reach over the decades. Two junior colleges were established for African American students — Coahoma Junior College in 1949 and Utica Junior College in 1954. Coahoma began as Coahoma County Agricultural High School in 1924 when Coahoma County became the first county in Mississippi to provide an agricultural high school for African Americans, and college courses were added in 1949. The school is now Coahoma Community College. As the result of a federal court order, Utica Junior College merged with Hinds Junior College in 1982 and is now the Utica Campus of the Hinds Community College District.
Desegregation of Mississippi’s traditionally White junior colleges began in the mid-to-late 1960s. In most cases, desegregation occurred gradually and without the upheavals experienced by some public schools. Today the community and junior colleges tend to have diverse student bodies that reflect the makeup of the populations of their districts.
Junior colleges change to community colleges
Junior colleges became heavily involved in career and technical education. This began during World War II, from 1941 to 1945, and expanded thereafter. The colleges are the main state agencies that provide career and technical education. Junior colleges also became more involved as centers of activity for entire communities. They provided academic, vocational, and technical courses, but also served communities in other ways. Thus, the name “junior college” no longer fit, and in 1987 the state’s junior colleges, with one exception, changed their names to “community colleges.” This was a better description of the role the colleges played. Only Jones County Junior College did not change its name.
In addition, community and junior colleges built educational facilities in their districts away from their original campuses. This was to provide even more convenient education for people who could not drive to main campuses or live in dormitories.
The Mississippi system of community and junior colleges remains true to its original mission. That mission is to provide a quality, accessible education for the state’s communities at an affordable price.
Ben H. Fatherree, Ph.D., is a professor of history at Hinds Community College, Raymond.
Mississippi’s Public Community and Junior Colleges, location of main campus, and date of establishment.
- Pearl River Community College (Poplarville, 1921)
- Hinds Community College (Raymond, 1922)
- Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (Perkinston, 1925)
- Holmes Community College (Goodman, 1925)
- Mississippi Delta Community College (Moorhead, 1926)
- Northwest Community College (Senatobia, 1926)
- East Mississippi Community College (Scooba, 1927)
- Jones County Junior College (Ellisville, 1927)
- Copiah-Lincoln Community College (Wesson, 1928)
- East Central Community College (Decatur, 1928)
- Southwest Community College (Summit, 1929)
- Meridian Community College (Meridian, 1937)
- Itawamba Community College (Fulton, 1948)
- Northeast Community College (Booneville, 1948)
- Coahoma Community College (near Clarksdale, 1949)
Broom, Knox M. “Department of Education Bulletin No. 57, Agricultural High Schools.” Mississippi Department of Education, 1929.
Broom, Knox M. History of Mississippi Public Junior Colleges: A State System of Public Junior Colleges, 1928-1953. Mississippi Junior College Association, 1954.
Calhoun, J.T. “Mississippi Department of Education Bulletin No. 34: Consolidated Schools in Mississippi.” Mississippi State Department of Education, 1923.
Eells, Walter C. The Junior College. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.
Lucas, Aubrey Keith. “The Mississippi Legislature and Mississippi Public Higher Education, 1890-1960.” (unpublished doctoral dissertation, Florida State University, 1966).
Witt, Allen A., James L Wattenbarger, James F. Gollattscheck, and Joseph Suppiger. America’s Community Colleges: The First Century. American Association of Community Colleges, 1994.
Young, James B. and James M. Ewing. The Mississippi Junior College Story: The First Fifty Years, 1922-1971. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1978.