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California Higher Education, The Master Plan, And The Erosion Of College Opportunity


California higher education was one of America's great public policy and educational success stories in the second half of the 20th Century. The post-World War II era introduced several decades of robust population expansion, and California led the nation—and indeed the world—as it achieved almost phenomenal growth of college opportunity. Sharp increases in student enrollments and campuses were paralleled by the rising quality and reputation of the state's public and private colleges and universities, of its advanced research, and of higher education's support of a vibrant state economy.

California's private colleges and universities have made vital contributions to the state throughout its history and they continue to do so. The principal story of the postwar era, however, derives from the growth of the nation's largest array of public colleges and universities of all kinds—research universities, regional state colleges and universities, and community colleges. This expansion reflected national trends at the time, but California was unique in its commitment to access and in the influence and continuity of a core public policy framework that was articulated in the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education. The Master Plan's early successes in expanding college access created momentum that was sustained for decades. Yet despite the remarkable durability of this venerable framework, the Master Plan's relevance and utility have become problematic as California confronts the impact of educational, economic, and demographic change.

Two convergent themes are central to the modern history of California higher education: the public policy framework that enabled and supported broad college opportunity for most of the post-World War II era; and the expansion of access through a massive and diverse array of colleges and universities. In the following pages, I will describe these themes and then turn to three changing conditions facing higher education that have emerged over the past three decades:

  1. Unstable, constrained public finance combined with political volatility;
  2. Demographic shifts; and
  3. A decline in the effectiveness of public schooling.
A concluding section draws these themes and conditions together while presenting several challenges confronting California in the first decade of this century.
1 California State Department of Education, A Master Plan for Higher Education in California, 1960-1975 (Sacramento: 1960).


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