Time to Update the Master Plan?

It’s officially that time of year. Knock, knock UC Irvine, once again the latest freshmen flood comes knocking at our door.

With UCI’s SIR date rapidly approaching on May 1, the deluge of eager freshmen ready to embrace their college home will become a presence known in many ways on campus. SPOP staffers will finalize their preparations for a long summer. The dorms will empty in June, only to be filled shortly after, but that’s just the surface.

Of all the many faced games of numbers, this one is perhaps the most cruelly reductionist:

106,186 — the number of freshmen applications the University of California system received for fall 2011 admission —  is its largest ever. 72,432 — the number of freshman admitted, including 59,288 California residents. That’s up from 68,329 freshmen, including 58,777 California residents, in fall 2010.

These numbers are good right? A larger pool of applicants means that the UC system is growing. Not only is higher education in greater demand, but a UC education is also highly sought after. The higher numbers boasted by a growing university can mean greater prestige, growing academic units, more professors, better professors and more money for the university.

According to recently released admissions data, the UC admitted about 500 more California residents than it did last year. Admission of traditionally underrepresented demographics has also increased by 3 percent from 2010-2011. In addition, 41 percent of freshmen admitted are the first in their families to attend college, the proportion of admits from low Academic Performance Index schools increased and about 37 percent of freshmen are from low-income families.

Prestige, growth and money, however, require a university to be flexible enough to accommodate a rapidly growing influx of students year after year; something the UC is inherently not. While there is no perfect system for managing a university, much less a sprawling university system of 10 campuses, the UC system as it exists now is too constrained and too outdated; it’s bending at the seams and threatens to burst.

The California Master Plan for Higher Education was, and still is, majestic. It is an embodiment of the California promise and, for many years, served admirably as the cornerstone of the state’s higher education system. It was the lodestone, the sextant and the infallible guide. The plan was designed in part to give Californians a more flexible system of higher education. The state was growing fast. More people than ever wanted to attend colleges and universities, and California had a growing need for an educated workforce.

The state prospered under a swift sunrise. The fertile land held promises of life, liberty and property. The golden air hung — a gilded curtain over the west — but that was a long time ago.

The Master Plan is now more than half a decade old. In effect, the university is using ideas and policies from the 1960s as its guide — the equivalent of going into battle today with a musket. It just doesn’t cut it. Now the light is fading fast, and the road’s getting treacherous.

What’s needed is a reassessment of the entire system and, perhaps, an entirely new plan for the 21st century. This concept of reworking the Master Plan is nothing new. Part of Governor Jerry Brown’s campaign focused on assessing and fixing California’s education problem, however, the only widely publicized solutions for higher education on Governor Brown’s part have been to hand out sweeping cuts — cuts universally recognized as draconian.

The stark reality is that, for the time being, cuts are inevitable. California’s budget is bloated. Entitlement programs, social services, prisons, etc. are inflated to unsustainable levels, and spending on higher education continues to fall year after year. At the same time, tuition levels continue to rise. Ten years ago, the cost of attending a UC school was thousands less than it is today.

During fall quarter 2007, tuition for UCI was less than $3,000. Today, quarterly tuition approaches $4,000. This steep increase has caused a much-publicized problem across all UC campuses: students are dropping out, unable to pay, their families unable to bear the financial burden.

Perhaps there’s a silver lining. Yes, current applicants are finding it harder and harder to gain admission to universities or colleges. Class sizes are growing exponentially, professors are overworked and graduate students serving as teaching assistants are feeling the strain as they are forced to teach to more students without physical or monetary help.

But in some way, doesn’t the increasing scarcity of spots for students hold the promise of a more exclusive, more prestigious university? Will a UC degree increase in value because it’s harder to acquire? Decreased access and affordability go against all of the values espoused in the Master Plan, and allowed to run rampant as they have over the past few years, the excellent quality of education that the UC is known for will continue to erode.

The current system is broken. Instead of staying the course and driving the UC off a cliff to crash into the pale pacific, what if the Master Plan is retooled? What if lawmakers create a new plan for the 21st century? It’s time to take the road not taken instead of staying the course.

Please send comments to newuopinion@newuniversity.org. Include your name, year and major.