The state's budget cuts to the three-tiered system - University of California, California State and community colleges -- may threaten the system's world-class reputation.
The state's college and university systems, which educate 2.3 million students annually, have roots in California's early days, but their modern history begins in 1960, when the educational plan was approved. It called for all state residents to have access to a tuition-free, public higher education, and outlined the mission of the three levels of colleges.
The higher education system has been credited with helping to shape and nurture California's economy and draw striving migrants from around the world.
"This notion of the California dream, the idea that every adult could go to college, we've been hacking away at that during every recession for the past 25 years, and this year may well be it," said Patrick M. Callan, president of the San Jose-based National Center for Public Policy and Education. "We're coming out of this really tarnished."
"It had a magnet effect here for people who had ambitions for their children, that they could come to a place with good and virtually free public education all the way through college," said Richard White, an American history professor at Stanford University.
But White, who earned his bachelor's degree at UC Santa Cruz, said he is worried that the budget cuts and higher student fees could jeopardize that tradition. The state's public universities will remain "perfectly good universities but not what they were before." And that, he said, "is a real tragedy."
The governor and legislative leaders acknowledge that the cuts will be devastating, but say they have no choice.
Already, campuses from Humboldt to San Diego are raising fees, shedding courses, slashing enrollment, and compelling faculty and staff to take unpaid furlough days. Class sizes are up, library hours are down, and long-held dreams for new programs and schools are on hold.
Students at UC and Cal State say they worry that the cutbacks will lengthen the time it takes to graduate.
UCLA civil engineering major Jesse Diaz, 20, had hoped to finish his bachelor's degree in four years, with one extra quarter, but now expects it will take him five years. Critics of the UC administration contend that UC is purposefully aiming the cuts at undergraduates to increase political pressure, and should instead tap other income sources, including endowments and research grants.
"I think it's a really dangerous game and the students are already going to suffer," said Bob Samuels, a UCLA lecturer who is president of UC's American Federation of Teachers union. This week, Samuels was among 67 UCLA lecturers who received warnings that they might face layoffs next year.
UC's enormous reservoir of federal and private research grants, hospital revenues and its formidable fundraising operations shield it more than Cal State from the pain of the state's deficits. State funding accounts for less than one-sixth of the UC system's overall operating budget, Los Angeles Times reported.
UC President Mark G. Yudof said such painful steps do not mean the system has collapsed. "I don't think the sky has fallen yet," he said, "but I look at these trends and ask myself how long can you reduce course offerings and still hold your head up and say you are still offering students a high-quality education?"
Yudof and others say this is a time to consider fundamental changes in how UC works. Russell Gould, the Board of Regents chairman, is launching a commission to examine the university's future, including such ideas as: Should its campuses grow or shrink? Should they specialize in certain academic areas? Should majors or departments be reduced, merged or eliminated?