Mississippi’s system of community and junior colleges developed out of the state’s agricultural high schools, which had been established as boarding schools in the early twentieth century. By the 1920s, however, cities and counties began to build high schools, and the agricultural boarding schools lost their role. Influenced by the idea of junior colleges developed at the University of Chicago, Julius Christian Zeller, a state senator from Yazoo City who had previously served as superintendent of Bolivar County Agricultural High School, introduced legislation in 1922 allowing agricultural high schools to offer the first two years of college classes if local leaders wished to fund them.
Mississippi’s junior college movement developed out of the populist political atmosphere. In Poplarville, home of Theodore G. Bilbo, Pearl River Agricultural High School offered its first college-level courses in 1921–22, prior to the passage of Zeller’s legislation. Hinds County followed in 1922–23. By 1928, twelve schools had added junior college work, and Zeller authored legislation that created a commission to oversee them and provided the first state funds for their support. The new state commission established attendance zones and other rules to prevent every agricultural high school from establishing a junior college and to prevent the colleges from competing with each other and with senior colleges.
The junior colleges established an unofficial accrediting agency made up of professors from Mississippi’s colleges and universities to approve course offerings. Agricultural high school teachers became the junior college faculty. When teachers lacked the graduate work needed to qualify as college instructors, they spent summers taking courses. Faculty members continued to teach both college and high school classes and to fulfill other duties, such as imposing discipline, monitoring dining halls, and chaperoning Saturday night movies in the school auditoriums.
Students who could not afford senior colleges could attend the junior colleges and work to defray their expenses. The agricultural schools had farms attached, so students worked in the fields, cooked in the dining hall, or washed dishes in return for room and board. Most schools maintained strictly regimented schedules, ringing bells to direct students through days filled with chapel, classes, and two hours of evening study before lights out. “Social hours” allowing males and females to spend time together were closely supervised. The schools gradually developed newspapers, sports teams, debating societies, bands, and theater groups, providing students many of the same opportunities available at senior colleges. Library facilities long remained subpar, but many transfer students did well at the senior colleges.
In 1937 Meridian’s city schools added grades 13 and 14, creating Mississippi’s only municipal junior college and the only one that did not begin as an agricultural high school. The city later created T. J. Harris Junior College to serve black students.
The system was shaped by the Mississippi Junior College Association, made up of the presidents of the junior colleges (the former superintendents of the agricultural high schools). They weathered the depression with help from New Deal programs, which they used to supplement scarce county and state funding. During World War II, the junior colleges developed into vocational training centers, so that when the veterans returned, the schools were positioned to serve the GI Bill students who flooded campuses. Military surplus buildings added housing and classrooms at little cost to the institutions. State appropriations for vocational training increased, and the junior colleges prospered.
Itawamba and Northeast Junior Colleges filled a vacuum in the hill area of the state when they opened in 1948. By 1950 the legislature severed junior college ties to agricultural high schools. Junior colleges for black students did not exist until 1949, when Coahoma’s black agricultural high school added college courses; Utica followed suit in 1954. All of the white schools earned accreditation from the Southern Association during those years.
Significant desegregation of the traditionally white junior colleges did not occur until the mid- to late 1960s. Meridian Junior College remained part of the city’s public schools and merged with T. J. Harris Junior College under a 1970 court order. A decade later the college established a board of trustees and severed its ties to the municipal school system. All of the other junior colleges gradually admitted African Americans beginning in the vocational programs, which were subject to federal funding guidelines. None of the junior colleges reported any confrontations over integration. In response to 1982 court order, Utica Junior College became a branch campus of Hinds Junior College; however, the legislature created a district for Coahoma, making it the state’s only historically black junior college.
Between the 1960s and 1980s, rural schools built branches in urban centers, vocational and technical students came to outnumber students preparing to transfer to four-year colleges, and part-time commuter students became increasingly common. Reflecting these developments, all of the junior colleges except Jones County Junior College changed their names to community colleges in 1987.
As the state provided more funding than the counties, conflicts arose between the institutions’ presidents and local trustees, who were appointed by the county supervisors, and state officials. Legislative investigations and reports from outside consultants resulted in a 1986 compromise: the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges replaced the old governing body comprised of the school presidents, but local trustees retained control under state regulation.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, Mississippi boasted fifteen community and junior colleges that offered job training, adult education, and traditional college courses at campuses and centers around the state as well as online via the Mississippi Virtual Community College. They have remained connected to their historical roots in the state’s agricultural high schools as they have brought high-quality, low-cost educational opportunities to hundreds of thousands of Mississippians.
Community and Junior Colleges in Mississippi
- Coahoma Community College, Clarksdale
- Copiah-Lincoln Community College
- Wesson (Main Campus)
- Natchez Campus
- Magee Campus
- East Central Community College, Decatur
- East Mississippi Community College
- Scooba (Main Campus)
- Golden Triangle Campus, Mayhew
- Columbus Air Force Base
- Hinds Community College, Raymond
- Holmes Community College, Goodman
- Itawamba Community College, Fulton
- Jones County Junior College, Ellisville
- Meridian Community College, Meridian
- Mississippi Delta Community College, Moorhead
- Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College
- Perkinston (Main Campus)
- Applied Technology and Development Center, Gulfport
- George County Center, Lucedale
- Jackson County Campus, Gautier
- Jefferson Davis Campus, Gulfport
- Keesler Center, Keesler Air Force Base
- West Harrison County Center, Long Beach
- Northeast Mississippi Community College
- Booneville (Main Campus)
- New Albany
- Northwest Mississippi Community College
- Senatobia (Main Campus)
- Benton-Marshall Center, Ashland
- De Soto Center, Southaven
- De Soto Center–Olive Branch Campus, Olive Branch
- Lafayette-Yalobusha Technical Center, Oxford
- Pearl River Community College, Poplarville
- Southwest Mississippi Community College, Summit
- Ben H. Fatherree, “The Community and Junior College System in Mississippi: A Brief History of Its Origin and Development,” mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us
- Mississippi Community College Board website, http://www.sbcjc.cc.ms.us
- James B. Young and James M. Ewing, The Mississippi Public Junior College Story: The First Fifty Years, 1922–1972 (1978)