Abraham Lincoln launched the college-building craze when, in 1862, as the bullets flew and the bodies fell on the battlefields of the Civil War, he signed the Morrill Act, giving every state a huge tract of federal land with which to build a public university. In 1869, California joined the craze by opening the University of California. One newspaper editorial hailed it as "the perfect structure, a magazine of new thoughts and new motives, ready for the new and bright day of the future." Another supporter declared that it would be a "mighty anchor in the stream of time."
Yet not until California's trust-busting Progressive politicians claimed power in the early 1900s did the populist promise of the state's higher education system begin to take shape. The Progressives saw higher education as a path to the middle class -- and with an educated middle class they were convinced they could loosen the stranglehold corporate powers like the Southern Pacific Railroad had on the state. "The university was their Progressive dream come true," historian Kevin Starr has written.
State support for the University of California soared from a few hundred thousand dollars in 1900 to more than $3 million by 1920. As future UC president Clark Kerr would write, "The campus is no longer on the hill with the aristocracy but in the valley with the people."
Down in that valley, more and more people wanted an education. New campuses sprouted statewide before World War II, and then in its wake were flooded with returning GIs and former war workers. Governor Earl Warren used those colleges and universities as "shock absorbers" when the state's wartime economy-on-steroids slowed. He put his money on a novel concept: California would educate its way out of any post-war slump.
The education system exploded in the 1940s and 1950s. Students poured into classrooms. But not until Kerr became president did he and other education leaders attempt to create a systemic blueprint for growth with what was called the "California Master Plan for Higher Education." Under this plan, the brightest students were to attend a flagship UC school, the next-smartest group would go to a Cal State school, and the remainder would start at a two-year community college with an eye toward transferring to a four-year college.
The Master Plan brought order to a rapidly growing system. It was hailed around the world as a stroke of genius when it came to educating young people. In 1960, Time magazine even put Kerr on its cover, bestowing on him the title of "master planner." (Kerr was a complicated figure. He later clashed with UC-Berkeley's famed Free Speech Movement, yet FBI director J. Edgar Hoover believed he was too close to campus activists and secretly pushed for his ouster. The college's board of regents unceremoniously fired him in 1967.)
This was the heyday of California higher education. Enrollment grew by 300% between 1930 and 1960, and the state's share of college funding kept pace. But that all started to change on June 6, 1978, when California voters approved Proposition 13, a ballot measure that limited property tax assessments. More importantly, it handcuffed state lawmakers by requiring a two-thirds supermajority any time they wanted to increase taxes, and made a two-thirds vote among citizens necessary to raise local taxes. Prop. 13 kicked off California's "tax revolt" of the 1970s and 1980s, a slew of ballot measures that choked off revenue for state and local governments and left lawmakers scrambling to fill the gap. It was the beginning of the demise of public higher education in California.
"We're Just Getting Chainsawed"
Journalist Peter Schrag describes what followed as the "Mississippification" of California. Hot with the fever of an anti-tax, small-government movement, Californians began the long, slow burn-down of the state's higher education system. As Jeff Bleich, a former Cal State trustee and former counsel to President Obama, put it in 2009, California higher education "is being starved to death by a public that thinks any government service -- even public education -- is not worth paying for. And by political leaders who do not lead but instead give in to our worst, shortsighted instincts."
The numbers tell the story. In 2011, public colleges and universities received 13% less in state money than they had in 1980 (when adjusted for inflation). In 1980, 15% of the state budget had gone to higher education; by 2011, that number had dropped to 9%. Between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 state budgets, lawmakers sliced away another $1.5 billion in funding, the largest such reduction in any high-population state in the country.
Dianne Klein, a spokeswoman for the office of University of California president Mark Yudof, couldn't contain her dismay when reacting to recent cuts. "Here we have the world's best public university system, and we're just getting chainsawed," she told the Daily Californian. "Public education is dying, and perhaps we are reaching a tipping point."
According to a 2010 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, young adults in California are less likely to graduate from college than their parents. Among the 20 most populous states, California ranked 18th in 2010 in its rate of students going straight from high school to college; factor in all states and California ranked 40th. According to the institute, this crumbling bridge between high school and college means California could face a shortfall of a million skilled workers by 2025.
And what awaits the students who do make it into the ivory tower? Let me paint you a grim picture. Colleges are filling the gap in state funding by leaning ever harder on students and their families to pay more in tuition and fees. Thirty years ago, the state accounted for nearly 70% of public higher education funding; today, it's 25%. In the last five years alone, student fees have doubled for University of California and Cal State students. For community college students, they've leapt by 80%.
Students increasingly hunt for grants and scholarships to cover some part of their growing share of the tab, but far more often their only option is to take out loans. According to the Project on Student Debt, in 2010 nearly half of all graduates of public and private four-year schools in California were saddled with an average debt load of $18,000. Nationally, a record one-in-five college graduates has student loan debt, and in 2010, the national average for debt owed was $26,682, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center.
In California, community colleges have always been the most democratic of California's higher education options. They educate the majority of students, offer the most classes, and provide students with job training or a launching pad to a four-year college. They have, however, taken a Mike Tyson-esque beating in California's budget crises, losing $809 million -- or 12% of their state funding -- since 2008.
That's meant reduced class offerings, fewer sections of the classes that remain, and the laying off of faculty and staff. At the start of the 2012-13 school year, 85% of California's 112 community colleges had waiting lists of students trying to get into overbooked classes. In all, 470,000 community college students were stuck in such a situation. Eighty-two percent of these colleges said they weren't offering any winter semester classes at all. Enrollment is down at community colleges by 17%. "We're at the breaking point," Jack Scott, the recently retired community college chancellor, told the Los Angeles Times in September.