IT was a bold, utopian vision, a plan for higher education that offered hope, opportunity and -- most significant -- a place in college to all within the Golden State.

It was also a treaty, negotiated in tough, months-long talks aimed at quelling an intensifying war between the University of California and the emerging state colleges.

At the same time, with a tidal wave of students poised to hit the state's campuses, it was a desperate attempt by schools to fend off growing legislative control. And it worked.

Nearly half a century after Gov. Pat Brown signed it into law in 1960, California's master plan for higher education endures, virtually intact and still celebrated. Many experts, even those who believe it should be updated, say it helped shape not only California's renowned, tiered system of public colleges but also the state itself.

"It was a stunning achievement," said Kevin Starr, a history professor at USC and former state librarian. "The idea, so optimistic and extraordinary, was that each Californian would have available to him or her the ability to realize his or her best possibilities through higher education, whether the goal was to be a beautician or nuclear physicist.

"Had any other state envisioned something like this? The answer is no."

Part of an era of grand thinking in California that also produced the state's highway and water systems, the master plan quickly inspired other states and nations to expand their own systems of higher education.

David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, an umbrella group for the nation's major universities, remembers his undergraduate days in England in the late 1950s, when anyone with an interest in higher education was starting to hear about the groundbreaking plan.

"We looked across the Atlantic with jealous eyes," Ward said. "On issues of both access and quality, California was -- and to a large extent remains -- the model."

But as its chief architect, UC President Clark Kerr, would later recall, the plan's beginnings were far from auspicious.

In the late 1950s, California's higher education was in a state of chaos. Legislators, many eager to establish state colleges in their districts, were preparing to take control of higher education. UC campuses and existing state colleges were battling over resources and even their roles, with some colleges seeking to achieve research university status.

And the boom that would double the enrollment in California's public colleges between 1960 and 1968, taking the number of students enrolled from 485,000 to 975,000, was just beyond the horizon.

Kerr was alarmed, both at the lack of a strategic plan for growth and the threat to his beloved UC. With the support of the Legislature, which agreed to a moratorium on new campuses until the plan was completed, Kerr organized committees to study the issue.

Their recommendations, with the key committee being headed by Occidental College President Arthur Coons, became the core of the master plan. Each of the three segments of public higher education -- UC, state colleges and community colleges -- would "strive for excellence within its sphere," the plan stated, and do so without charging tuition to California residents.

Among other things, the plan and supporting documents:

* Outlined the different missions of the three levels of colleges. UC was defined as the state's main academic research institution, with sole authority to award doctorates. The state colleges, later renamed the California State University system, would offer bachelor's and master's degrees and have primary responsibility for teacher education and credentialing. The community colleges would offer two-year degrees, along with vocational and adult education.

* Set guidelines for admissions "pools" from which the different systems were to draw students. The UC was to choose from the top eighth of the state's high school graduates and the Cal State campuses from the top third. The community colleges would provide an open door, welcoming anyone who might benefit from additional education and prepare students to transfer to UC or Cal State campuses.

* Linked the Cal State colleges in a system with its own governing board.

* Expanded the Cal Grant financial aid program, which helps low-income, academically qualified students attend public or private colleges in the state.