CALIFORNIA’S public universities were once the envy of the world. Under the state’s pioneering “master plan” for higher education, signed into law in 1960, the top 12.5% of graduating high-school students in the state are guaranteed entry to the well-respected University of California (UC) system; the California State University (CSU) system is open to the top third. Community colleges accept all-comers, including adults. The plan hugely expanded higher education in California, and led also to the emergence of world-class establishments like Berkeley and UCLA.Yet it tied the universities’ fortunes to those of the state. In good times that was fine. But more recently public universities in California have been hit hard by the state’s fiscal woes. Declining state support has forced the UC system to slash costs and to raise average tuition fees by 50% in just three years. CSU fees have risen by 47% in the same period. “The historical model has broken down,” says Mark Yudof, the UC president.
California’s higher education system is looking increasingly like its high speed rail plan: an innovative idea for 1960, but one that hasn’t kept pace with the demographic and economic changes of recent decades.University administrators are counting on state taxpayers to vote them a $250 million subsidy later this year. But whether or not voters are feeling generous come November, high-ranking high school seniors will be guaranteed sky-high tuition along with their spot in the UC or CSU system.