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Commentary | PERSPECTIVES ON EDUCATION

Renew the Master Plan Promise

Access for all Californians, choice and quality are nearing a supply/demand crunch and an impossible fiscal burden.

March 08, 1998|JOHN SLAUGHTER and HAROLD M. WILLIAMS | John Slaughter is president of Occidental College. Harold M. Williams is president emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Trust and former dean of the Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA. They serve as co-chairs of the California Citizens Commission on Higher Education

California has a great tradition of broad, affordable access to its colleges and universities, which has been key to upward mobility for its residents. Putting education within the reach of every family is a basic principle of the state's famous Master Plan for Higher Education, founded on the dual premise that every student deserves an equal chance and that the future of the state depends on a well-educated work force.

Last year, California and Nevada tied for first place among the 50 states in increasing funding to higher education. Tuition in our public institutions will not increase for three years, and Gov. Wilson has proposed a large boost in student aid for private colleges.

But the future of this legacy is severely threatened, and we have already had a taste of what is to come. When the recession of the early 1990s reduced tax support for higher education, student costs rose sharply. The state abandoned many of the commitments of the master plan, allowing public institutions to reduce enrollments and to take other emergency measures counter to the plan's basic principles. Thousands of students were denied opportunities; others had to postpone graduation; many stayed in school only by borrowing large sums of money.

Meanwhile, private colleges received a declining proportion of state-funded aid and struggled with increased costs. The business community found graduates lacking the skills expected of college-educated workers, and some questioned whether California's higher education was serving the state's diverse population. In 1993, two-thirds of Californians surveyed by the Public Agenda Foundation felt it was more difficult to get a college education than it had been 10 years before.

Today, although Gov. Wilson's budget for higher education is generous and President Clinton is calling for tuition tax credits and increased federal support for student financial aid, the outlook is bleak. Why?

Projected state revenues and competing priorities for public funding point to a leveling off of support for higher education. Simple maintenance of existing campus buildings will consume ever-larger portions of operating revenues. Demand will grow significantly over the next decade, with 500,000 more qualified students seeking admission by 2006 than today at a cost of more than $5 billion. The state alone cannot bear that burden.

The Rand Corp. has predicted a "marked decrease in the level of higher education access" with the prospect of "more than 1 million students unserved in 2010-11." David Breneman, dean of the University of Virginia, has said that "for California, that outcome would be a social, economic and moral catastrophe."

Yet the state has no plan for meeting the crisis.

The California Citizens Commission on Higher Education, one of several groups addressing this issue, is the first private, independent, broadly representative group to undertake a policy evaluation of the state's higher education. Established in 1996, the commission engages in wide-ranging discussions with state leaders and encourages the public's involvement in shaping the future of higher education.

The objectives of the commission are to obtain agreement among those who most influence higher education to provide resources to maintain access, quality, choice and effectiveness, and to implement a policy to improve higher education's responsiveness to changing social and economic needs. The commission will seek consensus on the essentials for an action agenda, to be submitted later this year to the governor, the Legislature, institutions of higher education, the business community and the public.

Ensuring the future of the master plan must be a collective effort. Every citizen is a stakeholder. Diogenes said many centuries ago: "The foundation of any state is the education of its youth." We must rededicate ourselves to the birthright of educational opportunity for everyone.

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