Our Founding Story

Converging Forces

In 2002 California was reeling from the dot com bust and was still grappling with the aftermath of the electricity crisis. California’s leaders were fixated on these issues and higher education was absent from the priority list. In fact, the Governor’s 2002 budget proposed to finance higher education in a way that was inconsistent with the Master Plan for Higher Education, a forty plus year old document that guaranteed a spot for all eligible California students in one of its public institutions of higher education. A combination of budget cuts, enrollment growth, and fee increases at California’s colleges and universities were threatening the core of California’s college promise.

At the same time that California was sorting through its economic woes, warnings of “Tidal Wave II” abounded, Tidal Wave II being the explosion in college enrollment by children of the baby boomer generation between 2000 and 2010. By 2002, enrollment in California’s public colleges and universities had already begun to outstrip capacity.

Steve Weiner and David Wolf had been friends and colleagues for over 40 years. Both baby boomers from working families, they were able to take advantage of the Master Plan for Higher Education and were recipients of what was then a free education at the University of California. That priceless education opened big doors of opportunity for David and Steve. Both continued their studies and ultimately received their PhDs. Never forgetting the opportunities afforded them via public higher education, they committed their lives to California’s future by ensuring students could access that same opportunity. Combined, David and Steve spent nearly a century of work and service in the field of higher education. Prior to retirement, David had served in a myriad of positions for California Community Colleges: Faculty, Administrator, President, and finally Executive Director for the Accrediting Commission. Steve, prior to retirement, also served in various faculty and administrative positions in California’s public and private universities including posts such as Provost and Dean.

In retirement, the lifelong student advocates, David and Steve embarked on a fateful trip to UC Berkeley on March 20, 2002 to attend a meeting on community college finance. They joke now that they attended the meeting to be sure that the speakers had an audience to speak to; it turns out the room was packed. At the meeting they heard from a prominent state leader that despite the Governor and Legislature’s recognition that California was indeed facing a looming access crisis in higher education, nothing would be done. The speaker went on to share that although a lot of students were going to suffer as a result, nobody in the Capitol was going to do anything to ensure hard working students would have a spot in college.

“David, the Master Plan is dead…”

Astounded by this bold statement, David and Steve left the meeting, got in their car and drove home in near silence. Finally, Steve spoke and said, “David, the Master Plan is dead – California’s historic commitment to students that have done everything we’ve asked them to do is ending and kids will be denied their right to a college education – AND nobody is going to do anything about it.” The two sat in disbelief. Could it be true they asked? Could it be that what was a right and promise to one generation was now going to be utterly unavailable to the next? Could California be so short-sighted and not realize that it was turning its back on the very institutions that drive innovation and provide the workforce necessary for a robust economy? Could it be that California’s communities of color, in particular, were losing their right to achieve economic self-sufficiency through the most commonly used pathway toward upward mobility – a college degree?

Unable to accept that a promise so important to students and to the future of California could be so easily broken, Steve and David embarked on a week-long road trip across the state and met with college leaders to find out first-hand if students were being turned away from college campuses . After meeting with nearly 60 leaders in northern California, the Bay Area, the Central Valley, the Inland Empire, Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego, they confirmed that indeed, Tidal Wave II had arrived; colleges did not have the space to serve all of their students, and college leaders expected that things would only get worse.

David and Steve’s road trip notes were shared among many Californians. Conversing daily, David and Steve began to ask themselves what needed to be done in order to keep the college promise alive. They were convinced that if the existing leadership of higher education in California had the ability to fix the problem, it would already have been done, and therein was their answer. Any effort to save the promise of college opportunity could not be led by the “usual suspects” but rather had to be rooted in the broader community. Businesses and communities of color would have to join arms and voices and push to save spots in college for students.

Co-Founding Organizations

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And so was born the idea for a broad-based coalition of unprecedented character and size that included business, labor, ethnic group leadership, religious groups, and civic organizations all working together to ensure that California’s next generation of students had the opportunity to attend college, just as generations before them had. David and Steve felt that this coalition needed to focus on three core ideas: 1) California needs to invest more money into higher education; 2) students and families need to be willing to spend more to finance their own education; and, 3) colleges and universities have to operate in a more efficient way with state resources. Nobody was left out of the equation when it came to solving the college opportunity crisis. Students, parents, the state and the institutions themselves all had a role to play and sacrifices to make.

With the basic outline of a plan – a broad-based coalition calling for college opportunity with three core strategies – David and Steve were on the verge of a movement. But the “two old retired guys with no office and no money,” as Steve fondly recollects, couldn’t do it alone. The effort needed legs – it needed organizational co-founders. First, they approached Cruz Reynoso, former California Associate Supreme Court Justice and Civil Rights Attorney. A man they considered a friend and an advocate committed to equity in education, David and Steve went to Reynoso and asked if he would introduce them to Antonia Hernandez, then the President of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). Given the growing Latino population in California, they hoped that the most prominent and influential Latino civil rights organization would see the merit in preserving California’s historic promise of higher education and launch the budding effort.

Cruz Reynoso facilitated the introduction and Antonia Hernandez and her team at MALDEF agreed to meet with David and Steve. After a thorough description of the challenge ahead and how they planned to tackle it, some of Antonia’s staff chimed in. They said that it wasn’t that this was an “unworthy” effort but, MALDEF was stretched too thin. The team felt they didn’t have the capacity or resources to join the effort. Feeling a bit anxious at the prospect of losing what they considered to be the most important ally in the cause, they turned to Antonia waiting for her to respond. Antonia asked for a couple of weeks to make a final decision and like that, the meeting was over. David and Steve spent the next few weeks on pins and needles. They knew that if MALDEF turned them down, the effort would be over. Fortunately for them, and for California, Antonia called David and Steve in and said, “Well, you heard what my staff advised and I know I shouldn’t do this, but I will.”

Armed with new energy and more credibility, David and Steve approached the two organizations that would make their initial coalition broad in scope. The effort needed the solid support of the business community. After all, the business community is the beneficiary of an educated workforce and would be the first to feel the impact of a less educated citizenry, especially as the baby boomers continue to retire. The effort also needed the support of California’s Community Colleges – the largest institution of higher education in California and the U.S., serving over 70% of all students in higher education in the state. Intimately familiar with community colleges, David and Steve knew that the system was perhaps the most important in the state not just because of its size, but because of its precious policy of open access for all students. After several conversations, Bill Hauck of the California Business Roundtable (CBR) and David Viar of the Community College League of California (CCLC), agreed to join. With MALDEF, CBR, and the CCLC on board as co-founding organizations, David and Steve knew that they had moved from “wanting” to make a difference, to “convinced” they could make a difference.

The Campaign for College Opportunity is Born

In July of 2003, David and Steve submitted their first grant application using the new name, The Campaign for College Opportunity. In October of 2003, prominent California and national foundations joined in making The Campaign a reality by providing significant funding. It was the belief in the idea that a movement of citizens from the social justice, business, and higher education community could come together and act to preserve access to college and the American Dream for the next generation of students that excited the William and Flora Hewlett, James Irvine, Ford, and Packard Foundations to invest. All of these foundations had the foresight to know that if California failed to invest in higher education, the well-being of all Californians was at risk.

The Campaign for College Opportunity’s mission has been to ensure that all eligible and motivated students in California have an opportunity to go to college and succeed. The Campaign remains committed to keeping the State of California from breaking its promise of college opportunity to its next generation of young people in order to ensure a strong state for all of us.