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A brighter outlook for higher education in California

It's heartening to see voters, legislators and administrators united again in support of the Master Plan.

July 12, 2013|By Nicholas B. Dirks
  • The 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education in California created a partnership between the university, the public and the state. Above: The 307-foot-tall Sather Tower on the University of California at Berkeley campus.
The 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education in California created a partnership… (Los Angeles Times )

Under the leadership of Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown and University of California President Clark Kerr, the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education in California created a unique three-way collaboration between the university, the public and the state, a partnership that propelled the state to the forefront of scientific discovery, the arts, innovation and economic growth. At the core of that partnership was the idea of access. As Kerr noted, it was the first time in history "that a state or a nation would promise there would be a place ready for every high school graduate or person otherwise qualified."

As I begin my tenure as UC Berkeley's new chancellor, I am struck by the legacy of the Master Plan, made palpable in powerful stories students and alumni tell of how UC has touched their lives, serving as the inflection point for their intellectual formation, their social and cultural awakening, their emergence as political citizens and their preparation for careers. Many talk in particular about how a Berkeley education led them to believe in the importance of public service, with a strong commitment to changing the world for the better.

These stories confirm my belief that higher education is both a private and public good, and that we all have a great deal at stake when it comes to ensuring that the cost of attendance never stands between prospective students and access to our best colleges. By the same token, maintaining such access is a responsibility that must be shared by institutions of higher education and government.

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That is why I applaud the California Legislature and the leadership of Speaker John A. PĂ©rez for the bold effort to make UC and California State University attendance far more affordable through the new Middle Class Scholarship Plan. The plan will reduce tuition costs by 10% to 40% for students from families with household earnings between $100,000 and $150,000.

This legislation, along with the passage of Proposition 30 and a state budget that begins to reinvest in public higher education, acknowledges what is clearly true: The benefits of a college degree extend well beyond the individual student.

In fact, there may be no better investment of public funds. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that states get back about $7 for every $1 they invest in higher education. And yet not all of the public benefits derived from a well-educated population can be so quantified. The collective vibrancy of California's economy and culture relies on the ability of UC to maintain its position among the greatest schools in the nation, and on the state's commitment to making higher education available to more than the privileged few.

For our part, university administrators will continue to focus on supporting crucial financial aid programs, as finances allow. Across the UC system, students whose families earn less than $80,000 a year already have their tuition and fees fully covered. In addition, Berkeley took a leadership role on the affordability front in 2012 with the Middle Class Access Plan, the first program at a public university to extend financial aid to families with total annual income ranging from $80,000 to $140,000. Under this plan, the university guarantees that parents with income in this range and typical assets will not need to contribute more than 15% of their total income toward the annual cost of a Berkeley education. We expect the state's new program to complement Berkeley's, resulting in even greater assurance that middle-class students will be able to afford a Berkeley education.

The cost of accessing the high-quality educational opportunities afforded by the Master Plan has grown significantly in recent years, not least because of changing patterns of state support for higher education. At the same time, every campus has worked hard and successfully to reduce administrative costs and direct the savings to the academic core. But it requires significant resources to support the intensive teaching environment and the high levels of excellence in research and scholarship we have achieved. It is clear that significant increases in support for our colleges and universities will be crucial for the future health not only of these institutions but of our state.

After years of financial challenges that have frayed the ties that bind us together, it is cause for celebration to see voters, legislators and university administrators united again in support of the promise of the Master Plan and a shared commitment to higher education. While more will be required of us all to ensure that our public colleges and universities rest on sustainable financial foundations, the renewed recognition of our deeply shared interests in the widest possible access to higher education gives me real hope for our collective future.

Nicholas B. Dirks, the former executive vice president and dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Columbia University, began his tenure as chancellor of UC Berkeley in June.

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