For most of the 20th century, California led the nation — and the world — in the number of high school graduates who went on to college and earned degrees. Its famed public higher education system profoundly shaped the aspirations of the state's citizens and, ultimately, their views on what it meant to be a Californian. That system also attracted talent from throughout the nation and the world, and it helped build and sustain an entrepreneurial spirit that shaped new sectors of the state's economy — from microchips to biotechnology.
California's higher education system will help define the state's future too. However, the next chapter may be much less positive. The danger signs are numerous: falling public funding on a per-student basis, unprecedented limits on new enrollments, cuts in faculty positions and relatively low degree-production rates compared with economic competitors in Europe, Asia and other parts of the world. Whereas California was always among the top states in degree-completion rates, it now ranks among the bottom 10. And yet educational attainment levels are exactly what predicts the overall economic performance of states and nations.
The recession is partly to blame. But the trends in California are long in the making. And if budget and performance problems are the new reality, rather than a temporary detour, they presage a very different California — one less educated, and therefore less innovative, less prosperous and less dynamic.
Most critics and observers of California's system remain focused on incremental and largely marginal improvements, but that's not enough. If California is to retain its luster as an economic powerhouse, the state needs to think big: It needs to innovate and to re-imagine a higher education system that has barely changed in five decades.