The year was 1960, and an elite group of lawmakers and university officials gathered in Sacramento to celebrate creation of the California Master Plan for High Education.

It was, indeed, a momentous occasion that even those present at the plan’s inception had no idea, no real grasp of where that blueprint would take the state and its post-secondary students.

Where it took them was to the top, literally. Within a very short time span, California’s higher-education system was widely considered the best on the planet, producing the brightest and most-productive scientists, educators, thinkers.

You name it, and a graduate of a California university was likely among the best in that field. UC and CSU degree holders were solid gold in the executive towers and research labs worldwide.

That didn’t happen by chance. It happened because lawmakers and educators had the vision to draw a terrific map into the future. Where other states may have allowed their higher-education systems to just happen on their own, California’s colleges and universities were propelled by a sense of excellence, fueled by ambition, and steered by a readable blueprint.

Nearly a half-century later, leaders of the two higher-education systems were back in Sacramento last week. There was no celebration. They were, in essence, begging policy makers to help them draft a new blueprint for high education, because the original Master Plan has simply run out of gas.

One reason the old plan is running on empty is that it never really made any provisions for the kind of fiscal mess in which this state is now mired.

The old plan was predicated on growth and prosperity lasting forever. That dream died years ago, when state government got caught up in the maelstrom of deficit spending.

Now, for example, the Cal State system is struggling with a $500 million budget deficit. The UC is having similar funding problems.

Both systems are running up tuition costs and fees — which are really little more than de facto tuition increases — angering students, and chasing them away from these systems’ schools. The problems are so bad in the UC system that tuition/fees strategies include taking the system from public to private, a grim prospect about which we commented a few days ago.

Like state government itself, higher education needs a new game plan. The old plan is shot full of holes and on the ground. We see how the old plan for government has made it essentially dysfunctional.

If higher education is to depend on that 50-year-old master plan, the colleges and universities it serves also are threatened with dysfunctionality.

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These possibilities are truly frightening. If government doesn’t function, and higher education is restricted to only the wealthy elite, the aerie where California once perched will crumble and fall. You can’t support a vibrant or even viable state economy without an educated and skilled work force.

You’re probably asking yourself, why all this negativity, especially now during the holidays. We’ve always solved these kinds of problems in the past.

The answer is simple — this is a problem so severe, so threatening that we need to start thinking and talking about it. Now.

State government needs a new business model. That’s only going to happen in a statewide constitutional convention. Higher education needs a new master plan, one that relies less on bricks and mortar, and more on common sense and innovation.

It’s time California’s taxpayers demanded more for their money. This state has been a leader in so many categories for so many years, we should never settle for second-best of anything. We all need to stand up for what is right.

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