SACRAMENTO — It was as much a peace treaty as a plan, and it was built around a pledge: Every Californian would get a fair shot at a taxpayer-supported college education.
"It is the most significant step California has ever taken in planning for the education of our youth," said Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, while signing the Master Plan for Higher Education on April 26, 1960.
Nearly 50 years later, the plan is faltering, burdened by decades of passive state oversight and a blurring of the roles the state's three branches of higher education were supposed to play.
The results are grimly manifest throughout California.
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A major role of the 110 public community colleges, for example, was to act as "feeder schools" to the University of California and California State University systems.
But studies have found that only about a quarter of the community college students who take transferable courses go on to a California public four-year school.
Sometimes there's no room to transfer: Earlier this month in San Diego, 1,000 students, who in the words of one administrator "did everything they were supposed to do" at the community college level, were denied admission to San Diego State University.
Sometimes there's no room even if they don't transfer: In Cupertino, 2,300 students who were vying for space at De Anza Community College in September got not a single class they were seeking. The crowding was caused in large part by students who could not get into San Jose State University because of budget cuts.
Sometimes there's too much room: In Monterey and Merced, newer CSU and UC campuses are half-full, while most other sites in the systems are overflowing.
"California, which set the gold standard for higher education planning in 1960, now stands alone among sizable states in its lack of established goals, a statewide plan and an accountability system for higher education," concludes a January report by the nonpartisan legislative analyst's office.
A plan for peace
Created as California was bracing for the onslaught of baby boomer students, the higher education master plan delineated the roles of each of the three postsecondary systems: The UC would select students from the top 12.5 percent of high school graduates, focus on research and maintain exclusivity in awarding doctoral and professional degrees.
The state colleges (now the CSU system) would select from the top one-third of high school grads and focus on nondoctoral degrees and training teachers.
The junior colleges would focus on vocational instruction, and on providing the first two years of undergraduate classes for those who wanted to transfer to four-year schools.
Notwithstanding its lofty aspirations, the master plan's deepest roots were in the often-fractious relationships between the higher education systems and their mutual distrust of the governor and Legislature.
The UC wanted to preserve its position of eminence and retain its monopolies on research programs and doctoral degrees.
The state colleges chafed at the fact that they were overseen by the state Board of Education and lacked the independent direction the UC enjoyed. They wanted to be able to award doctorates and run major research efforts.
Both systems wanted first dibs on locating campuses in regions of the state that were underserved.
Efforts to reach an accord that would satisfy everyone sputtered for years. But when newly sworn-in Pat Brown warned in April 1959 that he wanted a compromise done within a year or elected officials would do it, negotiations intensified.
The result was a plan in which everyone gained and gave. The state college system won greater independence, with a board of trustees, while the UC kept its tight hold on research and doctoral degrees.
To accommodate the state's swelling student ranks, the community college system's role was expanded, and it got a board of governors in 1967.
Restoring the promise
The plan, historian John Aubrey Douglass wrote in 2000, "fulfilled its basic promise, fostering ordered growth at a manageable cost to the people of California."
Douglass' observation, however, applied to the 20th century. In the 21st, keeping the plan's promise has proved problematic.
Plagued by budget cuts, most of the 33 UC and CSU campuses have imposed enrollment limits for the first time.
That has triggered a ripple effect that has jammed community colleges and pushed thousands of Californians into for-profit universities such as Kaplan, DeVry and the University of Phoenix.
"They're going because it's convenient, they're going to graduate on time and they're well-received," said Richard Dittbenner, government relations director for the San Diego Community College District. "Those are issues we three systems really need to be thinking about."
In its January report, the legislative analyst's office recommended what in essence amounted to an overhaul of the higher education master plan.
The analyst's office suggested California look at aspects of other states' approaches to higher education, such as those in Texas, Virginia and Ohio that tie state support of — or levels of autonomy for — public universities to the schools meeting goals, such as graduation rates.
It recommended that legislators reform or abolish the California Postsecondary Education Commission, the 37-year-old panel charged with planning and coordinating the state's higher education systems.
The analyst's report concludes that the commission has been squeezed out or ignored by elected officials and higher education leaders on many key policy issues in recent years.
Other sources have suggested more radical tweaks to the master plan.
Assemblyman Marty Block, D-San Diego, a former college administrator, has suggested that some community colleges be allowed to issued a limited number of baccalaureate degrees to take some of the pressure off the UC and the CSU — and, at $26 per credit, offer Californians what would be the best college bargain in the country.
Florida has had a similar program since 2001, and half of the state's 28 community colleges have one or more bachelor's degree programs.
Block and others have suggested that the state's budget crisis offers an opportunity for a revamping of the master plan — and makes it a necessity, because state support is not likely to increase appreciably in the next few years.
"It's high time we take another look at our master plan and see how we can improve it," Assemblyman Manuel Perez, D-Coachella, said at a legislative hearing on the plan earlier this month. "We can't wait another 50 years."