Fifty years ago on April 3, the state created a system of community colleges that ushered in dramatic growth in the network of schools that now enroll 300,000 students.

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Dan Evans, who as governor helped pass legislation to create a unified state community-college system 50 years ago, says the law helped Washington develop one of the best networks of two-year colleges in the country.

But it wasn’t without controversy.

April 3 marks the 50th anniversary of the state’s Community College Act, which offered an open door to higher education for everyone, regardless of their academic background or experience. Gov. Jay Inslee will recognize the date with a proclamation honoring the founding of the college system.

Evans was governor during the community-college system’s boom years, and he signed the Community College Act into law. The system now numbers 34 schools across the state and serves about 381,000 students.

National education experts often cite Washington’s community colleges as among the strongest systems in the country. In 2013, Walla Walla Community College won the Aspen Institute Prize for Excellence in community colleges, and this year, Pierce College won the Leah Meyer Austin Award for making significant changes to the way it approaches education.

About half of the state’s high-school graduates enroll in a community college after high school.

The first state community college was Centralia College, which opened its doors as Centralia Junior College in 1925, with 15 students. By 1945, the state had opened 11 more community colleges, all of which were part of their local K-12 school districts.

Evans said the state experienced a tremendous demand for growth in its higher- education system in the late 1960s, when the baby boomers — those children born shortly after the end of World War II — entered college.

“Everyone was agreeing we needed to have an expansion, but there was a huge disagreement as to how to run them,” Evans said of the colleges.

Some argued that the colleges should be run by administrators in the K-12 system. But Evans and several leaders in the Legislature instead suggested an independent system that would allow consistent management across the campuses.

One of the early supporters was Charles Odegaard, then president of the University of Washington. “He came out very strongly in favor of building an independent and strong community-college system,” Evans said. That was a surprise to some people, who expected the UW to oppose such a system because it could take money or resources away from the UW and other state universities, Evans said.

The legislation helped usher in new community colleges. In 1966 and 1967, seven new community colleges opened: Seattle Central, Bellevue, Whatcom, Spokane Falls, Walla Walla, Pierce College Fort Steilacoom and Edmonds.

“The late 1960s was a time of economic boom,” Evans said. “And during that time, we were able to really finance education, at all levels, in a way that’s been difficult ever since.”

Evans said he believes community colleges should stick to the mission of providing a low-cost education that can be a springboard to a bachelor’s degree. He sees a danger in schools trying to expand and develop four-year degrees.

That happened in Louisiana, a state with a smaller population and tax base than Washington. Thirteen of that state’s community colleges became four-year institutions, a move that weakened the whole system by taking away money from Louisiana universities, Evans said.

Evans said he’s talked about Louisiana’s decision to convert community colleges to four-year schools with former UW President Mark Emmert, who also once worked as Louisiana State University chancellor. Evans said Emmert told him “that is a direction that leads to disaster, and I agree with him.”