California’s Master Plan for Higher Education – which set academics ablaze with the promise of a nearly free college education for all who qualified – is limping toward the half-century mark largely ignored by lawmakers who don’t even pretend they can live up to its expensive commitment.
That’s the finding of a report released Thursday by the state’s Office of the Legislative Analyst. It says today’s reality of soaring student fees, volatile college budgets and enrollment caps are so far removed from the guiding Master Plan, that something must be done to bring them in line.
The Master Plan was crafted in 1960 to establish a coordinated system of colleges and universities, with the goal of steering students appropriately toward the University of California, California State University or community college largely free of charge.
"Today its assumptions look pretty quaint," said Steve Boilard, the report’s author. "There’s a big disconnect between what the state’s priorities are and what’s actually going on."
That point is not lost on thousands of students and families angry about rising fees at a time when many can’t even get into basic courses.
At a recent protest in Long Beach, where the CSU trustees raised yearly fees by 20 percent to $4,026, students held an all-night vigil, reading aloud from the Master Plan.
"Accessible, affordable, high-quality and accountable" were its guiding principles for higher education. Nominal fees were to be charged only for such ancillary categories as recreation costs.
Yet next week, UC regents are expected to raise fees by 32 percent, topping $10,000 for the first time. It would be the eighth fee increase since 2002.
California’s budget crisis has led to cuts of more than $500 million from CSU since last year, more than $800 million from UC, and more than $700 million from community colleges.
The new report doesn’t fault state lawmakers for the out-of-control economy, but says lawmakers have failed to set policies to guide colleges and universities through turbulent times, as the Master Plan calls for.
With no new policy on how much students should pay for their education, "fee levels have been unpredictable and volatile, with little alignment to the cost of instruction or to students’ ability to pay," the report says.
Not only are lawmakers unaware of what it costs to educate students, they lack a policy for funding enrollment growth, the report says. The result is hit-or-miss decision making.
CSU announced recently that it must trim enrollment by 40,000 over two years, and had to cancel enrollment for next spring.
Although lawmakers can’t micromanage the schools, they have "tremendous leverage over fee decisions by how much state funding they appropriate," Boilard said.
"So they could enter into a conversation with the universities and say, ‘We’re going to build you a budget with the expectation that fees will be at X level. And if you’re unwilling to enact those fees, we’ll reconsider the amount of state support."
Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge (Los Angeles County), who chairs the Assembly Higher Education Committee, said those conversations have already begun in preparation for hearings on overhauling the Master Plan, possibly in December.
"California has dramatically changed in 50 years," Portantino said. "We need to make sure the promises made are kept."
Ricardo Gomez of the UC Student Association agrees. But the Cal undergrad is skeptical that conversations and hearings will change the fundamental problem.
"We’ve been lobbying legislators for years telling them that UC is not living up to the Master Plan," said Gomez, legislative affairs chair for the association.
"We can talk about innovative solutions, but at the end of the day it comes down to fully funding higher education," he said. "The state needs to increase its revenues."
The California Master Plan for Higher Education
In 1959, state lawmakers asked the UC regents and state Board of Education for a plan that would develop, expand and integrate the curriculum and standards of California’s colleges and universities for years to come. The plan approved in 1960 called for periodic increases in fees for noninstructional services, such as activities and athletics. Faculty salaries would be paid by the state.
Most of the Master Plan principles are not codified in state law. Here are two of its key provisions:
Eligibility targets: The top 12.5 percent of graduating public high school students are eligible for UC. The top 33.3 percent are eligible for CSU. Everyone 18 or older who can "benefit from instruction" is eligible to attend a community college.
Other goals: Higher education should remain accessible, affordable, high-quality and accountable.