The 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education in California, created by University of California President Clark Kerr and his contemporaries, brought college within reach of millions of American families for the first time and fashioned the world’s strongest system of public research universities. The California idea, combining excellence with access within a tiered system of higher education, and underpinned by a taxpayer consensus on the common good inherent in equality of opportunity in education, became the leading model for higher education across the world. Yet the political conditions supporting the California idea in California itself have evaporated. The taxpayer consensus broke down two decades after the Master Plan began and California no longer provides the fiscal conditions necessary to ensure both excellence and access, especially access for non-white and immigrant families. Many students are now turned away, public tuition is rising, the great research universities face resource challenges, and educational participation in California, once the national leader in the United States, lags far behind. The article traces the rise and partial fall of the Californian system of higher education as embodied in the Master Plan, and draws out lessons for other countries in general, and China in particular.