Monday, June 22, 2009

California's 'Gold Standard' for Higher Education Falls Upon Hard Times


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.

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