By JOSH KELLER
Few documents in higher education have enjoyed the influence or longevity of the California Master Plan for Higher Education, the 1960 law that transformed the state's public colleges and served as a blueprint for public systems across the country.
Even today, almost 50 years after it was written, the master plan retains a mythic status in California, where it continues to provide the foundation of public debate about higher education. Californians routinely invoke the plan's promises of minimal fees and universal access as the basis for nearly any argument about the state's colleges.
Oppose tuition increases? Cite the master plan. Decry cuts in state support for student-aid programs? Cite the master plan. Support, or reject, changes in admissions policies at the University of California? Cite the master plan.
But as California grapples with one of the worst financial crises in its history, the master plan faces criticism that it is irrelevant to the needs and means of the state. Many scholars and college leaders argue that the hallowed document that has served the state so well for decades needs to be rewritten.
"There's probably only one thing that's worse than a public policy that fails, and that's a public policy that succeeds and outlives its usefulness," says Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, in San Jose, Calif.
By any measure, California's colleges are still some of the most diverse and highest-quality public institutions in the country. But Mr. Callan and others point to indications that the state's higher-education system, once the gold standard for institutions from community colleges to research universities across the country, is having trouble adapting to California's changing needs.
Compared with other states, California's educational capital is declining, a phenomenon that predates the current recession. In 1990, California ranked 17th in the proportion of its residents ages 25 to 34 who hold bachelor's degrees or higher. By 2007 it ranked 25th, well below other big states like New York, Illinois, and Virginia. (See box at end of article.)
In a report often cited by college leaders, the Public Policy Institute of California estimated this year that the state would fall one million college graduates short of its work-force needs by 2025. The nonprofit group's report suggested that the state's inability to move through college enough Hispanic residents, its fastest-growing group, was a key cause of the shortfall.
Those issues are a far cry from the ones California faced in 1960, when 90 percent of the population was white, the state was flush with cash, and the main challenge was designing a higher-education system that could absorb a tidal wave of new students in the baby boom. The architects of the master plan responded with a promise to provide access to higher education to all high-school graduates who could benefit from it.
Today the plan's focus on access at any cost has its downsides, says Jane V. Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability. California, she says, does only a mediocre job getting the 2.7 million students who are enrolled in the nation's largest community-college system to graduate or transfer to four-year universities. Only about one-quarter of the state's community-college students who seek a degree succeed in receiving one or transferring to a university within six years, according to estimates by California State University researchers and others.
The master plan "was a good way to distribute resources and enrollment in a state that was increasing capacity and had an almost limitless pot of revenue to support it," Ms. Wellman says. "It doesn't get to the deeper issue of how to increase educational attainment. The challenge now is how do you get more kids prepared for academic success, and how do you get more students who enroll focused on attainment? And California is falling down on both of those."
As a result, she says, "the master plan has slowly become irrelevant."
Her arguments have taken on a new urgency during California's protracted budget crisis, which endangers some of the building blocks of the higher-education system. The state faces a $24-billion budget deficit between now and the middle of 2010, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has said steep cuts in state spending will be the only way to close the gap.
In recent weeks, Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed eliminating the state's need-based student-aid program, Cal Grants, which is among the most generous in the country and has been crucial to the master plan's promises of access. He has also proposed cutting state support for California State University and the University of California by about 20 percent in the 2009-10 budget year, and reducing funds for the state's community colleges by more than $900-million over the next 13 months.
The proposed budget cuts for colleges and universities themselves, which legislators are expected to approve, will probably decrease the number of students enrolled at state institutions on a scale not seen in at least two decades. Community-college officials estimate that the cuts would force them to reduce the system's enrollment by 250,000 students, which is equivalent to the size of California's entire college-student population when the master plan was written.
Jason Spencer, executive director of the Vasconcellos Project, a nonprofit group that advocates civic engagement, says conversations about state financing of higher education seem to happen in a vacuum, without regard to any sort of long-term goals. The master plan's prescriptions — low fees and universal access — are simply ignored when the economy is weak, he says.
"If we're going to move away from universal access, that's fine," Mr. Spencer says, "but let's have that conversation in the light of day. Let's have that conversation in public."
The Vasconcellos Project is one of several groups lining up to use the 50th anniversary of the master plan to encourage a major revision. The organization is named after a retired state lawmaker who had such influence over the state's colleges in the 1970s and 1980s that some college administrators refer to him as "the Godfather of higher ed."
Over the past 30 years, most reviews of the master plan have failed to result in major revisions. In 2002 a panel of college administrators and others issued a set of recommendations, including one that the state should work to raise the number of students who transfer from community colleges to the University of California. Those recommendations failed to make it through the Legislature.
Mr. Spencer says his group seeks to avoid that fate by working more closely with lawmakers, with a focus on setting long-term goals for higher education in the areas of affordability, access, and degree-completion rates. If everything goes well, a legislative committee aligned with the project will open hearings on the master plan in September and issue policy recommendations about possible revisions next spring.
"We believe that we can get all three segments on the same side," Mr. Spencer says, referring to the state's community colleges and two public-university systems. "What's a reasonable fee policy? How do we maximize federal Pell dollars in community colleges? Let's do the long-term planning."
A System of Factions
But getting the state's three public systems of higher education on the same side has often been difficult.
Among the master plan's most enduring features is its clear delineation of each system's scope and student population. Under the guidelines set out in the plan, the University of California must draw from the top one-eighth of the state's high-school graduates, California State University from the top third, and the community colleges from the rest.
That three-tiered structure helps to focus each system's mission, policy experts say. But they warn that competition among the systems makes it difficult for California to tackle issues, like poor transfer rates, that involve thinking about more than one system at a time.
"These systems might as well be in different states," says Mr. Callan, the policy-center president. "They solve their own problems and leave the students to find their way."
In some states, a higher-education coordinating board helps set statewide priorities and negotiates the interests of competing institutions. But California's board, the California Postsecondary Education Commission, has limited legal authority and a revolving leadership, and is widely viewed as lacking significant influence over state policy. State lawmakers are considering a proposal from Governor Schwarzenegger to eliminate the commission entirely and assign its functions to the state's Department of Education.
The lack of central state leadership on higher education works to prevent major change because each system digs in to protect its own interests, says Robert Atwell, a former president of the American Council on Education and of Pitzer College.
"Good public policy in higher ed is more than the sum total of individual institutional interests," Mr. Atwell says. "It certainly includes those interests, but you've got to have somebody who is looking at more than those individual institutional interests, and you really don't have that much more in California."
For instance, one way to increase the number of students who graduate might be to reallocate state support from the University of California to the other two systems, which have much larger student populations and cost the state less to support per student. "Of course," Mr. Atwell says, "the moment you say that, the University of California wants to crush you."
The state's disastrous financial situation may prove to be an even larger near-term impediment to serious discussions about the future of its higher-education system. In recent months, lawmakers have been preoccupied with keeping the state from going bankrupt, not with devising ambitious plans to remake some of the few major state institutions with a generally solid public reputation.
Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the California State University system, agrees that the master plan is simply "not relevant" any longer. He estimates that if the governor's proposed cuts in state support pass, the system will probably need to cut back enrollment by 40,000 students, or about 9 percent, for the 2010-11 academic year, an unprecedented number.
"There is no way to fulfill the master plan with the current financial capacity and structure that California has," Mr. Reed says.
But in the current budget environment, he says, "tinkering with the master plan is not the issue." He says he has not given much thought to how it might be amended. The real issue, he says, "is the courage of Californians to decide whether they're going to pay for higher ed or for prisons."
Ms. Wellman, of the Delta Project, says that until California gets out of its fiscal crisis and restores some ability to make intelligent policy decisions, defining new state priorities around higher education will be difficult.
But even if the master plan were revised, she says, the document carries so much baggage that it might be better to come up with a new name instead. Solutions that made sense 50 years ago, she says, are now getting in the way.
"The last generation's successes," she says, "become the next generation's problems."