California’s Master Plan for Higher Education--the pact forged in 1960 that essentially guaranteed a place in public colleges for all--is no longer valid and must be redrafted, according to a new Rand Corp. study released Wednesday.
Access to higher education, one of the three major elements the master plan seeks to preserve in the state’s public institutions, is eroding, while affordability and quality are seriously threatened, the study concludes. Meanwhile, the study charges, civic leaders are largely ignoring the problem.
“The state appears to be in a state of denial,” says the study’s author, Michael A. Shires. “While everyone agrees on the goals of the master plan, everyone also agrees that they are not currently being met. . . . The reality is that we can no longer afford to accommodate the college-level demands of our growing population.”
Shires’ analysis is the most comprehensive of several recent studies--one of which was made public just last week--warning that the state’s higher education system is in crisis. The so-called Tidal Wave II, a surge of future college applicants from among children currently enrolled in elementary and secondary school, is expected to peak during the next decade, with little hope of increased funding to accommodate it.
But already the system isn’t working, Shires says. The recession of the early 1990s had a major impact on the state’s three public systems: the University of California, the California State University and the 106 community colleges. According to Shires, the colleges’ responses to cutbacks--which included fee increases--caused many students to stay away.
“Enrollments . . . have dropped in a period when the state population has continued to grow,” he wrote in the study. “The number of students actually served in 1994-95 declined by more than 200,000 students from the number that would have attended had participation remained at pre-recessionary levels.”
This “access deficit,” as Shires calls it, is not a temporary phenomenon. It will grow in the future, he concludes, because the state will not be able to increase revenues enough, and the colleges will not be able to reduce costs enough, to reverse it.
“Consider that it would require reducing the cost of education by 70% to close the deficits,” he writes.
Instead, Shires suggests a complete reevaluation of the way public higher education is structured and funded--not a solution, exactly, but a process. Colleges and universities must be able to rely on a steadier revenue stream from the state, Shires said, and the institutions must show a better return on that investment.
But most important, Shires says, the state must reassess the compact that has served with such success for most of its 36 years.
“The master plan . . . can no longer provide the level of access it envisioned in 1960, and some new guidance has to be given for allocating the precious and scarce units of education that will be available in the future,” the study concludes.
Shires is not the only one to question the viability of the master plan, which promises a seat at UC for every student in the top eighth of the state’s high school graduates. The top one-third of graduates are eligible for Cal State, and anyone who desires can attend a community college.
The California Education Round Table--composed of the leaders of the public college segments, the independent colleges, the elementary and secondary education system and the California Post-Secondary Education Commission--is studying the issue. Last week, the California Higher Education Policy Center issued a report that reached many of the same conclusions Shires did.
“The road map to higher education’s future is out of date,” that study said of the master plan. “The people of California, through their state officials, should form a new social compact with colleges, universities and students, under which the benefits and burdens of maintaining college opportunity would be fairly shared.”