Higher education in America has always been formed with two contradictory faces: one provides the exclusive pathway for children of the elite; the other opens the door to select children from all (or almost all) walks of life. Thus our colleges and universities serve both the aristocracy of a capitalist system while also providing some openings to diversity that a true democracy requires.
The Morrill Act of 1862 provided new college opportunities, especially aimed at distributing technical talent to independent citizens as farmers and mechanics; but by the end of the 19th century there was already a shift toward more “scientific” training of workers needed for the new technological industries (see David Noble, “America By Design”, 1977, the story of M.I.T.).
The GI Bill, enacted at the close of World War II, opened college opportunities to a huge new class of citizens who had fought in the war for democracy over fascism; but that time also brought forward a huge increase in military funding for university research aimed to enlarge and improve the technologies of war. (The University of California came out as the permanent patron of the nuclear weapons laboratories at Los Alamos and Livermore.)
The 1960’s saw student-led uprisings on many campuses, in support of the Civil Rights movement, against the war in Vietnam, and for advancing many calls for diversity on the campuses themselves.
In California there was the Master Plan for Higher Education, creating three segments: the University of California (UC), accepting the top 1/8 of high school graduates (now with 10 campuses and total enrollment of around 234,000); the California State University System (CSU), open to the top 1/3 (now 23 campuses and enrollment of about 427,000); and the California Community College system (CCC), open to all high school graduates (now 112 campuses and enrolling about 2.6 million students). On the one hand, this arrangement made for a stratification that largely reproduced the existing economic orders in the service of large scale capitalism. On the other hand, it provided for large numbers of students, from almost all walks of life to get onto an upward economic escalator.
California’s system of higher education, from 1960 through the end of the century, has been generally hailed as the world’s most admired system of public education. And it paid off for California as an engine for economic and cultural growth.
But things have been changing lately, changing fast and furious. We call it Privatization. This takes many forms and we need to look at them in some detail to understand how they come about, who wins and who loses; and what forces are engaged in this great political struggle.