The California Idea and American Higher Education, 1850 to the 1960 Master Plan


This is the first comprehensive history of California’s pioneering effort to create an expansive and high-quality system of public higher education. Throughout this century, states established public colleges and universities at a dizzying pace, funding enrollment expansion to fit their perceived economic and social needs, and launching a truly dramatic experiment in social engineering. The result was a transformation of the scope and purpose of American higher education, and leading the way was California, with its internationally renowned network of public colleges and universities.

Most states struggled to coordinate their respective public institutions. Issues of governance, autonomy, funding, and accountability gained greater importance in local and statewide politics as the importance of higher education in American society increased, the number of public institutions grew, and the cost to taxpayers escalated.

Policymaking in California reflected these developments, but it differed significantly from policymaking in most other states in its early development of a coherent organizational structure for public higher education. In the Progressive Era, California established and funded an innovative, uniquely tiered, and geographically dispersed network of public colleges and a multicampus state university. California Progressives created a social contract and an organizational structure that coupled the promise of broad access to public higher education with a desire to develop institutions of high academic quality—an influential model the author has called “The California Idea.”

The author traces the social, political, and economic forces that shaped public higher education in California, and depicts its major personalities—such as David Starr Jordan, Benjamin Ide Wheeler, Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren, and Clark Kerr. The result is a carefully crafted history of California public higher education from statehood to the politics and economic forces that eventually resulted in the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education.