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Reconsidering California’s Master Plan for Higher Education

Governor Pat Brown signing the Donahoe Act implementing much of the Master Plan in 1960


For decades, California’s public university system has been a model for the world, and its prestige has helped to create much of the state’s prosperity. More recently the system has been stumbling – a victim of constant budget cutting, chronic overcrowding, and administrative gridlock.

But where did our system come from? Although many Californians don’t know it, our state does have a Master Plan for Higher Education, originally drafted in 1960. It formally lays out the state’s original goal for the system: to provide top-notch higher education that’s accessible to all students, regardless of financial status.

In the early 60’s, California’s future looked sunny and bright. Pat Brown, father of our current governor, Jerry Brown, was in his first term as governor, and he had an ambitious agenda. He oversaw the creation of much of what defines California today: landmark civil rights legislation, massive freeway expansion, and the design and construction of the state’s complex water system.

Brown also presided over the creation of the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education, the blueprint for the state’s college system. Baby Boomers were coming of age, and that meant a flood of new students in higher education. In the spirit of the big projects of the day, Governor Brown wanted a more coherent plan for the state’s system of higher education – a kind of sweeping statement of principles and goals. He convened fifteen education advisers to draft it, drawn from around the state. Clark Kerr, who was president of UC at the time, was the plan’s main architect.

California already had a public college system, but the new plan tried to better define each school’s role. The University of California was supposed to focus on research; California State Universities, then known as California State Colleges, on preparing teachers; and the community colleges on preparing students for transfer to the four-year schools. In this way, every high school graduate was guaranteed entry into the system. And although students would be expected to pay for incidentals – like dorm housing or textbooks – tuition was supposed to be free.

As it turned out, free tuition was one of many recommendations that never actually got turned into law. The Master Plan itself never became statute; it was a set of recommendations for legislators to act one. Some other recommendations that never became law were consistent admissions standards across the three systems, increases in funding, and a proposed full-year calendar that included adult education.

Still, the plan seemed to work, especially for students like Beverly Hayon. Hayon is 67 now, and lives in San Francisco. She attended public elementary and high school in Los Angeles, then community college in Los Angeles and San Francisco, eventually transferring to San Francisco State, graduating in 1968. She says she always wanted to go to college, but that when she graduated high school she didn’t really know how to get there. 

“I'm the daughter of an immigrant – my mother did not really understand or know how to manipulate the public school system,” she says. “So I never had any encouragement or guidance or help in planning for college.”

Given that lack of information, she says that the accessibility of community college was key to her success. Registering for classes was simple, convenient, and affordable. Hayon worked all through school.

“I was... a long distance operator back in the day when you actually had all these cords that you had to plug in to little holes,” she says with a laugh. Even while working, she says she never felt like a degree was out of her reach. “I think the system worked very well for me,” she says.

When Hayon was at San Francisco State, student fees were around $50 a semester. Students today pay much more – more like $3,000 a semester. This is for registration and fees, and doesn’t include things like books, housing, or other things that are student necessities. Even adjusted for inflation, that’s more than five times as much as Hayon paid. Tuition has risen sharply at all three branches of the state’s higher education system, especially in the last decade.

Just as in the 60’s when the Boomers were coming of age, Califonia’s college-age population is currently growing. The number of high school graduates hit an all-time high in 2010. But with more and more cut from their budgets each year, the UC’s and CSU’s are accepting fewer and fewer of their in-state applicants. According to a recent analysis by Bay Area News Group, five of the 23 CSU campuses have more applicants than available spaces–in every major. Class availability and overcrowding are also major issues.

Adenike Hamilton was president of the student association at San Francisco State for the 2012-13 academic year. She says students often try to “crash classes” at the beginning of the semester, when they’re not able to get into the ones they need through regular registration.

“You see people sitting on the floors, trying to get into the classes, things like that,” she says.

This competition to get into the classes that you need, plus the rising costs of tuition, can make going to a California public university a stressful experience.

“What's the quality of education when you're taking seven classes because you're trying to take as many as possible to get out of here?” she says. “You're working towards a degree but it's not in the way that you want to get there.”

Hamilton’s statement could also be about the system as a whole: California is working toward college degrees for its students, but how are we getting there? Robert Shireman, of education policy think tank California Competes, says it’s no wonder the plan is faltering under the weight of so many changes. He says the plan was only supposed to last us through 1975. The idea was that a Higher Education oversight board would revisit the Master Plan every 5-10 years to check in with how the state was doing, but there really haven’t been any major changes to the plan in these 50-plus years. And in fact, Governor Jerry Brown closed down the oversight board in 2011.

So, Shireman says, we have been drifting since 1960, “operating on the fumes of the master plan without really revising it to acknowledge the changed world that we live in, and the very different California that we are in.” 

He says there were many things that the people who wrote the plan could not have predicted. For example, shifting gender roles.

When the plan was drafted, most women did not go to college. So the plan did not include them when making projections for things like class sizes or housing needs. The state’s demographics have also changed a lot in the last 50 years, much of that due to immigration. We now have more than 1.5 million English language learners in the school system, a fact that the Master Plan takes no account of. At the time of the Master Plan’s writing, it was still quite possible to make a decent living with just a high school diploma, but today the labor market has changed.

“You pretty much need to have some type of college education in order to get a good family sustaining job,” says Shireman.

And then there’s the decline in state spending on higher education. When Beverly Hayon graduated in 1968, California was spending about 17 percent of its budget on its world-class university system. Forty years later, that number is more like 11 percent.

Michael Kirst is a professor emeritus at Stanford and president of the California Board of Education. He says the Master Plan was born out of an era when there was just a lot more confidence in the idea of planning.

“Now you don’t hear much about master planning in America for much of anything! We’re much more... freewheeling, things happen bottom up,” he says. “So the whole idea that you can build a master plan for an animal as complex as California post-secondary education doesn’t seem to fit with the times anymore.”

He says maybe, we don’t even need a document like the Master Plan anymore. The Master Plan was bold for its time, and Kirst wonders,  if this is the time for California once again to think of an entirely new model.

Perhaps the architects of that new model will come from the ranks of students currently enrolled in California’s public universities. Someone like Mazin Maghoub, who learned about the Master Plan in an ethnic studies class at San Francisco State. He says it’s important for everyone to know about the Master Plan.

“I think they should teach it in high school, when people are applying to college, so that they know that their state has made them a promise that they should get a higher education,” Maghoub says.

That’s a promise that California is still figuring out how to keep.