Photo by Arianna Puopolo.
Photo by Arianna Puopolo.
Assemblyman Ira Ruskin is the co-chair of the California legislature’s Joint Committee on the Master Plan. This committe is reassessing California’s public higher education system during the year of the Master Plan’s 50th anniversary. Photo by Arianna Puopolo.
Assemblyman Ira Ruskin is the co-chair of the California legislature’s Joint Committee on the Master Plan. This committe is reassessing California’s public higher education system during the year of the Master Plan’s 50th anniversary. Photo by Arianna Puopolo.
Illustration by Kenny Srivijittakar.
Illustration by Kenny Srivijittakar.

2010 marks the 50th anniversary of California’s commitment to higher education.

One half-century ago, California implemented its Master Plan for Higher Education. Since, it has become one of the state’s most lasting achievements.

“I think nothing has been more important in the past 50 years to the economic vitality and the quality of life in California than the Master Plan for Higher Education,” said Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, who currently co-chairs a joint legislative committee on the Master Plan.

In 50 years, California’s public universities have become some of the most esteemed in the world, educating millions with instructors who make groundbreaking research — even some who hold Nobel Prizes.

But in the past 30 years, the universities have increasingly become underfunded, budgets sliced by lawmakers at the state capital. Still, the California Master Plan for Higher Education continues to shape the debate on how to educate California’s, the nation’s and the world’s young people.

The Master Plan created a new structure of college education in California — a system dedicated to enabling students from any background to attend college.

“The important accomplishments of the Master Plan,” said Todd Greenspan, director of academic planning for the University of California Office of the President, “were reducing costs and promising access to everybody.”

The Plan

By 1960, California had almost 16 million residents, many of whom were World War II veterans who had moved west after the war. Their sons and daughters, members of the “baby boom” generation — almost 80 million Americans, born between the end of World War II and the early 1960s — were soon to enter California’s colleges in droves.

“We had a huge wave of students coming [to begin college],” Greenspan said, “and no real clear way to educate all of these students.”

The Master Plan for Higher Education was an attempt to efficiently funnel these young Californians into college. It sounded simple enough.

In 1960, Gov. Edmund Brown signed the Donahoe Act, dividing the three systems of public higher education in California — the UC, the California State University (CSU) and community colleges — into three specific functions. This act was the part of the Master Plan enshrined into law.

The University of California became foremost a research university, which would confer undergraduate and graduate degrees plus professional degrees, such as law degrees and MBAs. The California State University would emphasize teaching and award undergraduate degrees and master’s degrees. Community colleges would become two-year preparatory schools, facilitating transfer to a UC or a CSU, focusing on lower-division classes while also providing vocational and remedial training.

This division was an attempt to reduce the costs of administering California’s large higher education system while still providing admission to students interested in pursuing a college degree. With the three-tier system, UC and CSU campuses could take their capacity of students while the rest could go to a community college for two years, then transfer to the CSU or UC of their choice.

The Master Plan allowed the UC system to add two new campuses, UC Irvine and UC Santa Cruz, while the CSU opened three.

Clark Kerr, an architect of the Master Plan and president of the UC in 1960, described it years later as a bold and pioneering blueprint for educating college students.

“We started [the] Master Plan asking the state to commit itself … to creating a place in higher education for every single young person,” Kerr said during a 1999 committee hearing on the Master Plan.

“It was the first time in the history of any state in the United States, or any nation in the world, where such a commitment was made — that a state or a nation would promise there would be a place ready for every high school graduate or person otherwise qualified,” Kerr continued. “It was an enormous commitment, and the basis for the Master Plan.”

The Master Plan has had a tremendous effect on the education levels of California residents. According to a 2005 presentation to the Assembly Higher Education Committee, enrollment in higher education jumped from around 300,000 in 1958 to over 1.8 million in 2003. By 2008, the California Postsecondary Education Commission concluded that 2.45 million students were enrolled in some form of higher education in California.

The Plan’s Unwritten Commitments

The Donahoe Act specified the role of each university in California’s broadening higher education system. However, the Master Plan was also an expression of certain goals not written into law.

First among them was a student enrollment formula. Access and affordability was key. The authors of the Master Plan proposed that the UC guarantee admission to the top 12.5 percent of high school graduates in the state. They further proposed that the CSU promise spots for the top third of the graduating class, and the rest would find space in community colleges.

Second, the Master Plan pledged to continue California’s century-old tradition of keeping higher education tuition-free to residents of the state, but recognized that students should pay supplementary costs for housing, athletics and other student activities.

This idea — of a college education affordable to all — has become a point of contention during the recent state budget crisis, which has prompted student fee increases and campus protests.

The State of California, which provides funding for the bulk of instruction at California’s public universities, has slowly shifted funds away from these institutions.

“I think the problem now is that the state is not committed to funding it,” academic planning director Greenspan said.

While legislators engage in fiscal fistfights over balanced budgets, taxes and spending cuts, higher education has seen less and less money. The UC and the CSU have been forced to rely more and more on student fees.

Steve Boilard is the director of higher education policy at the California Legislative Analysts Office, the nonpartisan policy analysts for the California State Legislature.

“The idea that the state should not charge tuition has really gone by the wayside,” he said. “Ten thousand dollars to go to a UC — even though we call it fees, in effect that’s tuition.”

The Current Review

This year, the first members of the “baby boomer” generation will reach retirement age and begin their generation’s exit from the American workforce.

Fifty years after the California Master Plan for Higher Education ensured a place in college for this retiring generation, legislators at the state Capitol in Sacramento are beginning to reassess the Master Plan.

The California legislature has convened the Joint Committee on the Master Plan for Higher Education. It is headed by Assemblyman Ira Ruskin from the 21st Assembly District, encompassing San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, and Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod from the 32nd District, which includes the cities of Pomona, San Bernardino and Montclair.

This is the legislature’s eighth review of the Master Plan. During the last review in 2002, ideas for a master plan from kindergarten to college were discussed, but no laws were ever formalized.

“The last Master Plan review really didn’t result in any changes,” said Boilard, who testified before the current committee. “[But] it’s a good thing to have these conversations.”

The committee has held three hearings: an opening hearing, one on universal access and one on affordability and financial aid.

Assemblyman Ruskin spoke from his office after the hearing on affordability and financial aid on Feb. 17.

“The most important reason for convening the committee,” he said, “is that our system of public higher education is at risk, and we to have to take an objective and honest look at the system and make decisions about it.”

The committee has scheduled three more hearings, after which its members hope to put forward bills to amend or update the Master Plan. Some ideas, like major increases in financial aid in conjunction with higher student fees and a reorganization of the original division in the Master Plan, have been discussed by committee members and speakers invited to testify for the committee.

The goal of the committee is not to find a short-term fix for funding problems and fee increases, but rather to fashion a long-term vision for the state’s role in public higher education.

“If we recommend modification of policies, we need to do it with the long term in mind,” Ruskin said. “We owe that to the people of California. That’s what the people did who set the Master Plan.”

“The world has changed since even the last review of the Master Plan,” he continued. “We are now in a global market, and our graduates have to compete in a global marketplace. … So higher education has to be viewed through that lens more so than ever before.”

The committee is addressing ideas for amending the Master Plan, while also trying to ensure that California can educate enough young people to keep its economy competitive.

“In order to replace the baby-boomer generation, it’s important that young people from disadvantaged communities go to college and university and graduate,” Ruskin said.

Some higher education policy analysts believe the committee should propose laws that concretely address the fundamental idea of the Master Plan: access and affordability.

“On affordability, there should be a clear policy on what’s the basis for fees, how much we can charge [and] how much they can grow year after year,” Boilard said. “There are no targets for how many students should be enrolled in the university or what percentage of the state population should hold a B.A. There’s no goals for that, and [the Legislative Analysts Office] thinks it would be very helpful if the legislature would adopt some of those roles.”

A Legacy Going Forward

In 1960, the Sacramento Bee quoted Gov. Edmund Brown regarding the Donahoe Act, the part of the Master Plan enacted into law. “I am proud that with this bill, California takes the lead among the nation’s states in giving direction and purpose to higher education,” he said.

States like Oregon, Texas, North Carolina and Indiana have all modeled their college systems on California’s, but in 50 years California has yet to set the Master Plan on an updated course for the 21st century.

“A number of other states over the years have adopted a framework similar to what [California] had adopted. In recent years, a lot of them have gone far beyond us,” Boilard said.

“There’s new approaches that are being adopted [by other states], such as performance-based funding, better kinds of accountability system, … better goal-setting — having quantitive, measurable goals for higher education.”