California and Public Education: View From Abroad

Californians led the charge to modern mass systems of higher education.  Can California lead the regeneration of higher education and taxation policies focused on the public good?

December 14, 2014

California has been at the crest of modernity since the end of the second world war. The tendencies and tensions of the times often show up in California before anywhere else.

In an extraordinary 14-year period, California invented student power (Berkeley 1964), hippies and the collectivist counter-culture (San Francisco 1967), and then the polar opposite—or was it—the high individualist tax revolt, in the form of Proposition 13 (passed by State referendum in 1978). All of these inventions went on to sweep across the whole world. Then there’s Silicon Valley and Steve Jobs, not to mention the continuous influence of California’s film and television. We all live in California, at least for some of the time.

In the past fifty years California has also led the world in higher education and university-based science. California is unmatched in its concentration of private campuses (Stanford, Caltech, the University of Southern California), and public campuses (Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego). Only the Boston corridor is in the same league, and it lags well behind.

Perhaps more surprisingly - given the high capitalist ideology in California today - the state also long led the world in public planning and social access to higher education. The shining moment was the 1960 Master Plan, led by Clark Kerr, then president of the public system of nine (now ten) research university campuses known as the University of California (UC). The Master Plan was agreed on by the State Governor and legislature at a time, long since gone, when California led the United States in its rate of participation in higher education. The plan enshrined a high access model based on equality of opportunity, funded by the state, with low tuition charges.

The cost of student participation was limited by channeling most of the growth into two-year community colleges, and confining the research-intensive campuses of the University of California to the top 12.5% of school leavers. In between lay the four-year California State University sector. The barriers generated by this highly stratified system of participation (in many countries half or more students enter research universities) were meant to be offset by upward transfer of a good proportion of students from the community colleges to the California State Universities or the University of California campuses.

The distinctive feature of the Master Plan was the stratified three sectors of higher education with their carefully segmented missions. The Plan was hailed nationally and internationally as a mechanism that combined excellence in the top tier universities with universal access. The extraordinary transformation of higher education in China since the late 1990s has been partly patterned on California.

On the whole the excellence part has worked. Seven of the University of California campuses are positioned in the world’s top 50 research universities, and nine are in the top 150. They are not as strong as they were in competition with Stanford and Harvard for top researchers. The access part has proven more difficult.

The elite UC campuses are relatively equitable. Students from poor families, and first generation higher education students, are much better represented in UC than in private universities like Stanford. Both Berkeley and UCLA each have more low-income students than the whole Ivy League. Further, 40% of Berkeley undergraduates pay no tuition; 65% receive financial aid; and half graduate with no debt. In a country in which tuition is rising rapidly in all sub-sectors of higher education, these are impressive numbers.

But the resulting contribution to social equity is a drop in the ocean of a highly unequal education system. In the United States in 2011, of people in the top income quartile, 71% completed college by early adulthood, up from 40% in 1970. In the bottom quartile the completion rate had also increased — but only from 6% to 10%. In the second bottom quartile it rose from 11 to 15%. The bottom half of the population is largely shut out.

School retention in California was just 78.5% in 2012, with stark inequalities between rich and poor districts: 73.2% of Latinos and 65.7% of Afro-Americans completed school in 2012. The quality of community colleges and California State Universities is uneven by locality, and upward transfer rates are very patchy.

The culprit is California’s Proposition 13, which enshrined the doctrine that government tax/spend is a violation of individual liberty. The proposition has made it very difficult to increase taxes, and triggered recurring budget crises. Proposition 13 remains in place today and is a major stumbling block to efforts to improve access to high quality public education.

Since the prolonged recession that began in 2008, California has chopped off one third of state funding for higher education. All levels of institution are turning away qualified applicants for the first time since 1960. Community colleges no longer provide opportunity for all. Institutions in the University of California system face an impossible choice between steeply hiking tuition (blocking access) or allowing material conditions to further deteriorate and educational inequalities to widen. Alternatively, Californians will find ways to regenerate public support for common provision and equality of opportunity.

Californians led the charge to modern mass systems of higher education, and they led the evolution of the New Right and the retreat from public values. Can the State lead the regeneration of higher education and taxation policies focused on the public good? Repealing Proposition 13 would be a good place to start.


Simon Marginson is the 2014 Clark Kerr Lecturer on Higher Education at the University of California. He is Professor of International Education at the Institute of Education, University College, London; and also Joint Editor-in-Chief of the journal, "Higher Education." 


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