Academic Senate

Bring Back the Master Plan

Senator Susan Gubernat, CSU East Bay

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Bring Back the Master Plan
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Cue the mandolins: “Those were the days, my friend/We thought they’d never end.”  And then, they did.

“Those” days, for previous generations, meant that the Master Plan was alive and well, guaranteeing to eligible Californians a free, or nearly free, university education.


But such nostalgia is useless. Forward-thinking politicians, administrators, faculty, students, alumni and others need to stop their hand-wringing and get behind a strategy to restore affordable public higher education in this state. Otherwise, current and future generations of college students—a population ever more diverse and in dire need of the socioeconomic uplift that a college degree could provide—will continue to suffer from under-employment, poverty, and unconscionable debt.


Fortunately, a group calling themselves “Reclaim California Higher Education,” has introduced such a plan, outlining how to provide a free university education through significant tax reform. The plan, is dubbed “The $48 Fix: Reclaiming California’s Master Plan for Higher Education” (see A number of organizations, including the California Conference of the AAUP, the California Faculty Association, The University of California Student Association, and a host of local unions such as Teamsters Local 2010 and locals of the United Auto Workers, have endorsed their plan. The ASCSU will consider endorsing it as well during the upcoming March plenary.


The “$48 fix” is sure to be controversial among Californians who already feel taxed to the max. But the plan’s premise is that a targeted, progressive income tax increase, together with other tax reforms directed at Prop 13 (yes, that third rail of state politics), at estate taxes, at oil extraction, and through other means, could provide enough revenue to guarantee a tuition-free college education.


It must be said that the $48 per year that would be collected from a citizen and allocated toward this worthy endeavor is a bit of a marketing come-on: What makes the tax “progressive” is that those who would have the ability to pay more will be asked to do so. Forty-eight dollars per year applies to the median among California taxpayers with an adjusted gross income of just under $40,000. Those with the ability to pay more would be asked to contribute more, as those who earn less would be taxed less. So that someone with a gross income of between $90,000 and $99,000 would pay about $378 per year toward ensuring a free university education for all eligible California residents. Millionaires would be assessed at about $50,240. For corporations, the bill would be about $1,321 annually.


Those figures could be lower, however, depending upon how much revenue could be gleaned from those other tax reform proposals (Prop 13, oil severance, etc.) mentioned above.


Is this a redistribution scheme? In a manner of speaking, yes. But for most Californians it would be a relatively small price to pay to ensure that funding is restored to what was once a Master Plan that was the envy of all the other states and that provided those generations of students who benefited from it with a leg up economically—especially given the ever-increasing college debt of the current student generation, a debt not likely to be lowered any time soon if tuition increases continue to be regarded as the one significant way to backfill all the public funding that has been lost in this state. Over the past 30 years, according to the report issued by Reclaim California Higher Education, 45% of funding per FTE has been lost at the four-year universities; counting the community college losses, that would be 23% system-wide overall.


The much-touted need for 1.1 million new college-educated workers by 2030 would also loom less dramatically as more and more eligible students completed their degrees. The few other “fixes” to move toward degree completion that the CSU has embarked upon can do little to surmount what many agree are the socioeconomic barriers keeping students from completing a degree in four, or even six, years.


Of course, taxpayers, both individuals and corporations, need to agree that public education is a public good, not a private investment in an individual’s own future.


It’s dispiriting to note that even those who lead the three segments of higher education in California are finding it difficult to honor that value. When a former Chair of the Board of Trustees of the CSU opines that students should be paying some tuition in order to have “skin in the game,” you know that restoring full public funding in California has a long way to go to convince many that getting a college degree, or running a public university, are not mere business decisions or operations. Still, as it was in 1960, and perhaps even more so today—when our students are more ethnically diverse and often the first in their families to attend college—restoring the Master Plan to its original glory is a dream worth pursuing, not just for the future of individuals, but for the state’s own welfare and future prosperity.