Death of the Master Plan?


Posted on 08 December 2009

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By Pete Schrag
California Progress Report Columnist

A newly created legislative committee on California’s Master Plan for Higher Education listened Monday to a long list of college presidents, students, professors and others tell different versions of the same sad story: The fifty-year-old promise of the Master Plan has been broken.

But if the members, all presumably earnest men and women, had wanted a quick analysis, they would have been better off looking in the mirror. It was the state – governors and legislators and the voters they represent – that betrayed the promise.  .

The Master Plan, engineered by University of California President Clark Kerr in 1960, was a formal division of turf among the three segments of California’s higher education system.

UC would be a combined graduate and undergraduate system; only the top 12.5 percent of high school graduates would be eligible for admission as freshmen. CSU, the California State University would be a four-year college system focused on undergraduate teaching and open to the top third of high school graduates.

The community colleges would offer the first two years of general education as well as training in a wide spectrum of technical, trade and related fields, and would be open to anyone. The Master Plan assumed that 40 percent of UC students would enter as freshmen, the rest as transfers from the community colleges.

But it also guaranteed that all segments would be tuition-free. And it’s that part, of course, that, as UC President Mark Yudof put it, is now “in tatters.” 

What UC charges is still called “fees”, but by whatever name, the fees it charges, officially over $10,000 a year beginning next summer  -- 32 percent above what they were this fall -- are now higher than the sticker price at most other pubic universities.  Meanwhile students at all three systems will be packed into larger classes and in many cases won’t get the classes they need at all.

All that – high fees, faculty furloughs and employee layoffs, reduced admission – is now old news, as are the protests and harassment of university officials by both employees and students.

But, as Yudof and others told the Master Plan committee Monday, it’s not the Master Plan that needs fixing. The only thing wrong with it is that for some two decades, the state has been cutting back on its commitment to fully fund it. It’s only the community colleges that are still a bargain compared to similar systems in other states, but that bargain comes at an increasingly high price in reduced course offerings, excessive faculty teaching loads, and programs so overcrowded that many aren’t accessible at all.

Yudof says he’s trying hard to avoid privatization of the University, but even as he says it, UC is doing it. In addition to the most recent fee increases, Berkley is preparing to admit an increasing percentage of out-of-state students, who pay much higher tuition and thus a marginal profit center.  Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau says Sacramento has no right to complain since it’s not paying for the education of some 2500 Berkeley students now. 

The system is also studying creation of an “IT campus”, a distance-learning enterprise that will deliver instruction on the Internet and through periodic meetings of students and tutors but without formal class atendance. That, too, would be a profit-making venture. UC has also begun to enter deals, such as the $500 million venture with BP and the University of Illinois for research in new energy sources.

The universities are trying to mitigate the impact of tuition increases with additional financial aid. According to Yudof, virtually no UC student from a family with an income of under $70,000 pays any tuition. Through a combination of grants and federal tax deductions, moreover, most students from families making less that $180,000 will be shielded from at least the first year of tuition increases.

California in the past generation has slipped increasingly far behind the nation in its college-graduation rates, just as the United States, not long ago first in the world, has been slipping behind the rest of the world’s modern nations.

The obvious fix for all this – and probably the only way to protect what was once the world’s model for public higher education – would be for the state to wake up to the enormous risks of neglect and indifference. Necessarily that means higher taxes not just for the universities, but also for the K-12 schools on which so much of the success in higher education depends.

There are all sorts of reforms that could increase efficiency in all those systems – in the way teachers are rewarded, in tenure and retention policies, in more sophisticated accountability systems, in more creative uses of technology.

But in the end, the essential problem of the Master Plan is still the state’s abandonment of the commitment it made a half century ago. That commitment may have been too optimistic to begin with. So much has changed in the meantime that full funding may be impossible. So the march to privatization is likely to continue. That means still higher tuition and, one hopes, hefty financial aid for middle and low income students.

For the legislature, it probably means defacto recognition of what would in effect be a laddered tuition structure in which the rich subsidize others through the tuition they pay. As long as UC’s real price remains lower than Harvard’s or Stanford’s, it may be able to compete, but if they get too close, what’s to keep UC from becoming just another state university, maybe a little better than most, but not much. At this point it looks like that’s what Californians and the politicians, who represent them, really want.

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Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Wednesday for the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration will be published early in 2010.