Highland Community College's founding members provided a legacy of educational success. Whatever the challenges encountered since its humble beginnings, the prosperity of Highland was achieved through the support of visionaries who recognized the potential of a comprehensive two-year institution in northwestern Illinois. In every respect, Highland was a true community effort.
While September 6, 1962, is the date students first began attending evening courses at Freeport Community College, Highland's story can be traced to 1948 with the introduction of the Freeport Adult Education Program. Hundreds of men and women immediately took advantage of vocational and personal enrichment classes, reflecting the increased desire for continuing education in the area.
By 1961, despite one previously unsuccessful referendum to expand the Freeport High School facilities, the tireless advocacy of the school board and concerned residents paid off. A November bond issue totaling over $1.5 million was finally approved four to one. To carry out the vision of the aptly named Freeport Community College, a board consisting of Freeport School District Board of Education and Adult Education Council members was promptly established, as well as an advisory committee.
The college's name and subsequent motto of "serving northwestern Illinois" was chosen by the 15-member advisory committee, led by Marvin Burt and consisting of many of the same key individuals that influenced public opinion on the college proposal. In March of 1962, Earl Hargett from Northwestern University was chosen as the college's first dean by the Freeport School District Board of Education. Classes were held in the late afternoon and evening at Freeport High School, but expansion was imminent based on student demand.
When registration began in August of 1962, the anticipated enrollment of 200 students had already been exceeded by 100. This trend continued, especially after the first commencement ceremony, consisting of 16 graduates, on June 4, 1964. It was also in this year the Highland Foundation was created, the oldest non-profit organization in the state dedicated to managing charitable donations to a college. Promptly after its inception, the Foundation underwrote a four-county feasibility study to assess the needs of everyone within commuting distance of classes. The Foundation would later prove to be very instrumental in acquiring the modern campus site.
The subsequent comprehensive report convinced voters to establish a college district on October 1, 1966. Highland Community College held the first board election after the establishment of Illinois Junior College District 519. The original seven members, chosen by voters from a pool totaling almost 30 candidates, were as follows: H.C. Mitchell, Mount Morris; Louise Neyhart, Freeport; Dr. Lyle Rachuy, Stockton (chairman); Donald Richardson, Savanna; Robert Rimington, Freeport; Delbert Scheider, Red Oak; and Frederick Smith, rural Freeport.
Freeport Community College not only changed in name that year to "Highland" but further solidified plans for a permanent 210-acre campus on the Parker-Taft farm to the west of Freeport on Pearl City Road. This public and legal recognition that Highland was now a separate entity from the school district was a fortunate occurrence as classes at the Freeport High School location became inundated by students. To accommodate the increasing need for classrooms, students were also taking courses on West Stephenson in the former Freeport Insurance company building. In 1967, vocational classes were moved to a facility on Illinois Highway 26 South while science courses eventually found a home in a small building near the high school.
The San Francisco-based architectural firm of Delp Johnson, Poole and Storm, in conjunction with Orputt and Orputt Associates of Rockford, was chosen to begin planning amidst the unrelenting expansion of Highland's use of vacant meeting spaces around Freeport. Although the initial plans were rejected by the voters as too costly, modifications were made to the master plan and a 1968 bond issue was approved by voters. Armed with a master building plan spanning over 10 years, the construction of seven temporary structures was planned for the Pearl City Road location.
Just seven years after the first classes began, Highland prepared for the arrival of students from 17 school districts in Carroll, Jo Daviess, Ogle and Stephenson counties, as well as other states and countries. However, space to house the students, ranging in age from 17 to 65, was still being addressed.
Phase I of the campus project, consisting of the Instructional Materials Center and the Natural Science Center, began with a groundbreaking in January of 1971. Students also began occupying the temporary structures before the Instructional Materials Center and Natural Science Building were completed that fall. The familiar buildings and their signature pillars bordering the city limits, said to be inspired by the neighboring corn stalks, would come to fruition over the next 50 years.