In the mid-nineteen forties, thousands of veterans were returning to college, and universities across the country were soon overwhelmed by the volume and vigor of higher education students in the midst of a disorganized and disjointed system of learning. With this in mind, in the summer of 1946, President Truman appointed the first Presidential Commission on Higher Education for American Democracy–consisting of both experienced educators and novices–to establish and define the responsibilities and objectives of higher education in a post-war climate.
More specifically, this commission was set forth to tackle a failure of the higher education system dating back even before World War Two (Gilbert & Heller, 419). Namely, as the nation became increasingly globalized and connected to the outside world, it became apparent that the United States’ higher education system was not keeping pace with the social, technological, environmental, and educational advances of the greater global collective. This failure to adapt called for a reassessment of the higher education system to better prepare those being educated for the increasingly global and changing world. Thus, the commission had its goals outlined by its final emergence in 1947.
In short, Truman’s commission report calls for wide-sweeping changes in post-secondary education in terms of accessibility, merit, etc. Chief among these changes was the establishment of community (or “junior”) colleges, free of charge for those who can gain from an education beyond high school. The commission argued that the nation was depriving itself of a large group of potential leaders and innovators by maintaining economic hierarchy in higher education and by making community colleges more economically accessible, students were able to study locally, for free, and to advance their earnings and overall satisfaction as citizens (Farrell, 98). In terms of immediate change, the Truman commission faced many barriers of economic, social, racial, etc. leanings. But despite the opposition to such expansive change, the Truman commission unequivocally contributed to the shaping of the modern community college.
The Truman report was far ahead of its time. The higher education system envisioned by the commission was a system that was more supportive, sustainable, intellectual, equitable, and open to social change than anything before it, and has served as a yardstick for further legislation and action. Even beyond the community college, this vision for a future system of learning speaks to the advances made by the nation as a whole in the years following the report. And although many of the suggestions made in the report had its detractors, many of its recommendations are still in place today, including the financial support needed to study, the access of education for all, and the integration of higher education into our community as a whole (Farrell, 102). And beyond the name change made by the commission of “junior” college, the Truman commission bolstered the importance of community colleges within the system of higher education, and in a way legitimized the alternative to classical studies not before recognized.
True, no legislation has been passed based explicitly on Truman’s report, but it notably served as the first established commission aimed toward education and one that works at the national (rather than state) level (Fonte, 45). Regardless of its legal impact, Truman’s Presidential Commission on Higher Education for American Democracy continues to be incorporated in the social and societal shaping and development of community colleges nationwide.
Most recently, we see echoes of Truman’s commission in Reagan’s “A Nation at Risk” and Bush’s “A Test of Leadership,” which both call for significant changes and necessary areas of growth in post-secondary education, while highlighting the importance of community colleges as a deviation from the classical higher education system and its diminishing results.
Almost seventy years after Truman’s commission, in many ways the nation’s problems surrounding higher education are the same. Often, we fail to keep pace with other leading nations in innovation and education, and the disparity between those who do and do not attend college grows constantly. But despite the recurring problems facing educators and students today, we can look to Truman and his commission as an example of bold and sweeping changes that advanced the system to what we know it as today, and as a form of encouragement for the impressive changes our nation is capable of making to improve national and individual advancement.