California higher education: A half-century of the Master Plan

Matt Weir / The Collegian file photo

Fifty years ago, a pledge was made to all Californians, one that promised universal access to a college education.

Built upon a commitment to access, quality and affordability, California’s Master Plan was to be the ladder through which the population could move into higher education and serve as the engine behind the state’s work force.

The formula raised academic standards while at the same time allowed more Californians to go to college. However, adherence to that vision over the past five decades has been uneven.

Overburdened by mismanagement of large-scale growth in enrollment demand and a weakened state economy, the Master Plan has inched further from the reality laid out by the plan’s framers.

The threat of that altered reality has not been lost on the thousands of students who attend one of the 10 University of California campuses, 23 California State Universities or one of the 112 California Community College campuses.

Constructing a plan for higher education

Born out of the needs of the Post War Era, California in 1960 adopted a lofty blueprint for higher education that would merge the state’s colleges and universities into a coordinated system that sought to produce a well-educated work force during a period of rapid population growth.

“The Master Plan was a product of stark necessity, of political calculations, and of pragmatic transactions,” remarked Clark Kerr, the 12th president of the University of California and key figure in the plan’s development, in his personal memoir.

The plan established different functions, admission guidelines and priorities for each of the three systems, each with its own designated enrollment pools. The University of California would pull from only the top 12.5 percent of high school graduates; state colleges would draw from the upper 33 percent; community colleges, would accept everyone else while providing the first two years of undergraduate course work.

Recognizing the sub¬stantial public investment, the framers of the plan confronted the issue of costs by guaranteeing higher education would largely be free of charge.

The Master Plan also called for students to assume a greater share of their education costs by periodically increasing fees to cover noninstructional services such as laboratories, student activities and athletics. Financial aid would be made available for students who could not afford these costs, and direct instructional costs would be paid by the state for all California residents. Ancillary services like parking and dormitories would be self-supporting.

Just 10 years following the adoption of the plan, the total growth in higher education grew nearly 300 percent.

However, the Master Plan was as much about affording education to all those who qualified as it was about settling a war of territory between the CSU and UC systems. The plan’s compromise delegated that the UC would educate only the top high school academic performers as well as receives the majority of funding for large-scale research projects.

A promise largely ignored

For years, the Master Plan contributed to a sense of public confidence. Now, however, a sense that deep budget cuts and reductions in services are pushing higher education into brink of decline has befallen students and faculty alike.

Cody Madsen, the Associated Students, Inc. senator-at-large for residence, said in an interview with The Collegian last month he sees inconsistencies in the commitment laid out in the plan and that losing sight of this has created many of the problems in higher education the state has faced recently.

“Legislature should take a rebuilding year and focus on the golden obligations it has as a state and how it appeals to the students who live here,” Madsen said. “Even in times of economic turmoil education should never be the path that suffers.”

But, the state has no formal policy to guide the setting of student fees at the public colleges and universities, despite the promise laid forth in the plan. For the past several years, the state budget has not specified any particular enrollment level at the universities, instead allow¬ing the universities’ governing boards to decide for themselves how much enrollment to support with their funding.

“Without a statewide fee policy, consistent, rational funding formulas, a comprehensive student financial aid policy, and effective coordination, the system is moving away from the mission differentiation, well-defined enrollment pools and assumptions about affordability represented in the Master Plan,” said Principal Fiscal & Policy Analyst Judy Heiman of California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office. “It’s not so much that state policy has strayed from these principles, but rather the lack of state policies has permitted the higher education system to stray from the Master Plan vision.”

According to a report released by the LAO, key higher education funding decisions have been made without the benefit of clear state policy guidance.

Heiman said the state budgeting for the last few years, in which the Governor and Legislature have approved “unallocated” reductions for the segments, and have stated no expectations regarding the number of students the campuses should enroll are a prime example of this.

The value of the plan, Heiman said, lies in its principles. However, she argues that it is not sufficient to help policymakers make decisions about higher education in the 21st century.

“It creates an illusion of having a statewide plan or policy,” Heiman said. “It was a plan to guide growth for a 15-year period, and provided some enduring principles, but it does not provide the guidance we need today.”

Likewise, the community college transfer function has been an integral part of the master plan’s commitment to access, but has faltered in recent years as the transfer process has suffered from disjointed requirements and standards among universities. According to data released by the California Postsecondary Education Commission, relatively few students actually benefit from the transfer opportunities within public higher education that were central to the Master Plan. In 2007, less than 70,000 transferred. The result has been a logjam of students, many of which have been unable to register for prerequisite courses.

Amending the broken promise

The Public Policy Institute of California, a San Francisco based nonprofit research organization, found in a 2009 report that the state would fall one million college graduates short of its work force needs by 2025. The potential work force disparity between the level of education the future population is likely to possess and the level of education that will be demanded by the future economy is due to the growing demand for workers with a bachelor’s degree, concluded the report.

Ninety thousand graduates leave the CSU every year and enter the work force. The CSU alone educates the majority of the state’s bachelor degree recipients in several critical economic fields, including business, agricultural business and engineering, according to a 2004 report.

Despite the fact that tuition has been increasing for years, the three systems have struggled to absorb the monumental drop in state financing which has forced employee furloughs, enrollment freezes and reduced class offerings. At the CSU, the nation’s largest public university system, undergraduate fees have nearly tripled in the past decade. Last year, cuts of more than $500 million from CSU, $800 million from University of California, and $700 million from community colleges pushed the higher education further from the course of the plan.

The UC President Mark G. Yudof, CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed and California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott made a joint appearance at a legislative hearing on Dec. 7 to urge that the state restore enough funding to maintain the Master Plan, where they argued that California’s fiscal crisis has put at risk the ideals outlined in the plan.

“The Master Plan with its grand ideal of higher education for every qualified student is clearly in jeopardy today,” Scott said.

The plan’s relevance and utility have become problematic in the past year as California confronts the impact of educational, economic, and demographic change.

Fresno State President John D. Welty in a December 2009 interview with The Collegian said, “The Master Plan is on life support” and the higher education system has reached a point that it is turning away qualified students, a far cry from the original mission of the master plan.

“I think that there needs to be a discussion about higher education policy in this state,” he said. “And if the Master Plan needs to be revised, then we will revise it so that it serves the future of this state.”

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