No system like it in the Western world, Calif. higher ed

The largest system of tuition-free (almost free - generally under $200 a year) higher education in the Western world is celebrating its first 20 years and its first million degrees.

The California State University and Colleges system (CSUC), formed in 1961, today has a student body of 300,000 and a faculty of almost 18,000.

They are distributed over 19 campuses and four off-campus centers, plus the CSUC Consortium, dubbed ''the 1,000-Mile Campus,'' which offers programs in more than 30 geographic areas to adults who find access to a campus difficult.

CSUC, separate from but often confused with the more widely known nine-campus University of California, has amassed a teaching record of meeting specific human needs that dazzling statistics easily obscure.

A young woman chooses Humboldt State among the coastal redwoods for its baccalaureate degree nursing program - and becomes one of the 2 out of 3 California-trained nurses estimated to have taken the CSUC route to their RNs.

An Ivy League PhD in French, faced with complex financial responsibilities, chooses Cal State Fullerton to take his CPA work.

A bankrupt in his 40s from another state gets a four-year business degree in 21/2 years and starts a fast-growing business that now employs over 40.

Another business major pursues the CPA route at Cal Poly Pomona, adds a law degree later, and becomes the founding chairman of a savings-and-loan within 15 years after graduation from high school.

A Hispanic mother - her large family almost all grown up - studies for a new career via a degree in education at Cal State Los Angeles.

Another CSUC alumnus generates hundreds of jobs in a building trades complex that develops a huge subdivision. Another starts a wholesale nursery. Still another leaves without completing his degree in agriculture - thanks to a half-interest offer he can't refuse, to ranch and farm in the San Joaquin Valley.

Aspiring communications students learn by doing at northern Calfiornia's biggest television and radio facility, at San Francisco State.

And in 20 years, more than six times as many engineers have come out of CSUC as there are full time in the Army Corps of Engineers.

The oldest of the 19 - San Jose State - was founded eight years after the historic Gold Rush began. The newest - at Bakersfield - hosts more than half its 3,100 students part time or in the evenings.

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