California Higher Education,
The Master Plan, And The
Erosion Of College Opportunity
The 1960 Master Plan and the expansion of California higher education were not without flaws or critics. By real-world standards, however, they served Californians well in an era of rapid population growth.
First, the Master Plan was cost-effective in managing growth—including a 300% enrollment increase in the first decade after its passage. The Master Plan enabled the state to meet its commitments to college opportunity by efficient distribution of campuses and programs. Campuses were situated in population centers, and decisions as to where to locate new campuses were removed from the pork-barrel politics of earlier eras.
By resolving the issues of institutional mission and program allocation and by encouraging each sector, as the Master Plan legislation articulated, "to strive for excellence in its sphere," California developed a diverse array of colleges and universities to meet the needs of a growing population that had a broad range of abilities, motivations, and educational aspirations. By sparing the Legislature and public the battles over turf that dominated the higher education landscape in other states, the Master Plan contributed to public confidence, which in turn brought state financial support to higher education. The affirmation of the University of California's franchise in doctoral education and state-supported research positioned the University to maintain and enhance its standing among leading research universities.
The Master Plan and California's higher education system quickly achieved almost iconic status in California, but California now faces a very different set of challenges than in 1960. The performance of California education has declined substantially, and core provisions of the Master Plan have succumbed to political and budgetary pressures. Although citizens' commissions and special legislative committees in every decade since the 1960s have consistently reaffirmed the core provisions of the Master Plan, the letter and spirit of these provisions have been set aside when expedient. Reducing opportunity at the community colleges, and, at times, at the State University, has become a standard state response to financial difficulty. In contrast to the first decade of the Master Plan when enrollments exceeded expectations, the community colleges now enroll considerably fewer students than were projected by conservative forecasts less than a decade ago.
Despite these enrollment shortfalls, the community colleges have grown exponentially as their roles in serving local labor markets—and most Californians who aspire to a baccalaureate degree—have solidified. The community colleges enroll the overwhelming majority of college students in California. Relatively few students, however, actually benefit from the transfer opportunities within public higher education that were central to the Master Plan—less than 70,000 transferred in 2007 (13,923 to the University and 54,379 to the State University).21 One consequence is that California consistently ranks in the bottom third among states in baccalaureate degree production.22 In short, the egalitarian provisions of the Master Plan commitment—access and transfer—are in serious disrepair.
The diminished college opportunity that exists today in California casts a shadow on the state's economic future. A 2007 report from the Public Policy Institute of California warned that the state's workforce would likely fall far short of the level of education and skills needed in the future. The report's authors estimated that 39% of the jobs in the state's increasingly knowledge-based economy would require college degrees by 2020, but only 33% of working-age adults were projected to have acquired them by that time. The report warned that it is unlikely that the gap would be filled by in-migration of college-educated and trained workers because of California's high costs of living, particularly housing. The authors recommended higher rates of college participation and graduation among Californians.23 A separate analysis projected a decline in the educational attainment of California's adult population and in personal income by 2020, "unless the state can increase the number of Hispanics/Latinos going to college and getting degrees."24
As the indicators of a growing educational deficit accumulate, the state's financial condition offers little prospect of sustained infusions of new public dollars. Sporadic increases in state appropriations when the economy is growing rapidly can be generous, as in the "dot com" boom of the late 1990s and again as the state economy recovered from the recession of the early 2000s. However, the state budget faces a chronic structural deficit and, in years of weak state budgets, cuts to higher education are likely to continue to be severe.25
The adaptability of California higher education and the Master Plan to a radically transformed demographic, fiscal, and educational environment is limited. California has little capacity to set and adjust priorities across its higher education systems and programs in response to changing circumstances, particularly at a time when the state has reneged on its basic commitments to college opportunity. Evidence can be found in the continued and costly expansion of the University of California, particularly the new and poorly justified research university at Merced and the plans for new medical and law schools.
A great strength of the Master Plan was its delineation of distinctive missions and governance of each sector, which proved to be effective in meeting the challenges of the 1960s and 1970s. As the systems grew and matured, however, the organizing principle has come to look more like "each train on its own track" or each higher education sector in its own "silo." The same structure that has reinforced differentiated missions may also impede needed collaboration and effective distribution of resources across the higher education systems—for example, the need to work collaboratively with public schools to strengthen college preparation; the need to assure adequate funding for the community colleges, which are the first-line responders in adjusting to changing demographics, population growth, and the weakness of public schools; the need to improve transfer and graduation rates; and the need to expand access and capacity collaboratively through electronic technology.26
After the Master Plan resolved the urgent planning issues of the early 1960s, additional measures for assuring statewide planning and coordination were perceived as unnecessary and the mechanisms for these functions have always been weak. The ensuing vacuum in effective statewide policy and planning has contributed to the failure to set statewide priorities. There is a major gulf between the most urgent educational needs of California and the operating and capital priorities of educational and political leaders. This vacuum is partially responsible for the politicization of new campus locations and program allocations. In contrast to the expansion of the 1960s and 1970s, these decisions are not aligned with the educational needs of the state.
When initiatives are launched to address statewide educational needs, they are almost invariably confined to a single sector, which limits their impact even when they are effective. This has been the case with the impressive series of educational improvements initiated over the last decade by the State University under the leadership of Chancellor Charles Reed. These initiatives have included outreach to public schools to raise college aspirations, improve college readiness, and strengthen California's K—12 teaching force.27
For at least the past three decades, California's governors and legislators have been reluctant to assert statewide priorities, particularly when confronted with fiscal problems. This deference of state leaders to each of the higher education systems has meant that overall public priorities, such as access, affordability, and the transfer function, have often been inadequately protected in hard economic times and overlooked in good ones.
Unless the erosion of the egalitarian provisions of the Master Plan are reversed, pressures on the organizational arrangements designed in 1960 are likely to mount. Californians may eventually be confronted with issues that have been "off the table" for the last half-century. If California's colleges and universities as configured by the Master Plan fail to deliver to the current and coming generations opportunities that are comparable to those provided for past generations, public pressure could demand fundamental changes in the structure and governance of higher education, which, after all, are means and not ends. Options that state and educational leaders have been reluctant to consider in the past may be revisited—for example, regional governance of higher education—in order to find better ways to use scarce state dollars to address California's most pressing challenges.
The consequences of the reduction of college opportunity are manifested in the declining educational attainment of the young adult population. California's older population (ages 65 years and above) ranks eighth in the nation in the percentage that has attended some college or obtained an associate degree, and fifth in the percentage with a baccalaureate degree. In contrast, younger Californians (ages 25 to 35 years) are 41st in the proportion with some college or an associate degree, and 22nd in the percentage with a bachelor's degree.28 There is also evidence of a growing public awareness of the erosion of college access and its consequences. In 2007, the Public Policy Institute of California found that: almost two-thirds of Californians believe that college is necessary for success in the workplace; large majorities believe that getting a college education has become more difficult and is out of reach for many who are motivated and qualified; and 68% believe the state will need more college-educated workers in the future.29
The bold policy blueprint developed for California in the mid–20th Century has become increasingly out of alignment with the state's educational, economic, and demographic realities of this century. Despite rising public concern, governmental and higher education leaders have shown little motivation or capacity to develop a new framework or master plan better suited to the state's current needs and aspirations. It is ironic that the state that first put forth the principle of universal college access has reneged on that principle at a time of major demographic and economic transitions. For the foreseeable future, some California colleges and universities will continue to rank highly in national research ratings and other measures of reputational quality and prestige. However, these accomplishment will be small consolation if they exist as islands in a state otherwise characterized by diminishing educational opportunity, declining levels of educational attainment, and reduced standards of living.
California Postsecondary Education Commission, "Custom Data Reports," http://www.cpec.ca.gov/OnLineData/SelectFinalOptions.asp (accessed May 5, 2008).
National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, Information Center, http://www.higheredinfo.org/dbrowser/index.php?submeasure=85&year=2005&level=nation&mode=data&state=0 (accessed May 5, 2008).
Hans P. Johnson and Deborah Reed, "Can California Import Enough College Graduates to Meet Workforce Needs?" in California Counts 8, no. 4 (San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California, May 2007).
"Projected Drop in Income for California Most Severe in U.S.," Policy Alert Supplement (San Jose, CA: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2006).
Dennis Jones, "State Shortfalls Projected to Continue Despite Economic Gains," Policy Alert (San Jose, CA: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2006). Mario Martinez and Thad Nodine, "California: Financing Higher Education Amid Policy Drift," in Patrick M. Callan and Joni E. Finney, Public and Private Financing of Higher Education (American Council on Education/Oryx Press, 1997). 2006).
Issues and problems of collaboration are described in National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, A Promise Worth Keeping, A Special Roundtable Examines the Challenge of Renewing California's Historic Commitment to Access and Quality (San Jose, CA: 1997); Kathy Reeves Bracco and Patrick M. Callan, Competition and Collaboration in California Higher Education (San Jose, CA: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2002); William H. Pickens, "The California Experience: The Segmented Approach," in The Multicampus System, Perspectives on Practice and Prospects, ed. Gerald Gaither (Stylus: 1999); and Richard C. Richardson, Jr., Kathy Reeves Bracco, Patrick M. Callan, and Joni E. Finney, Designing State Higher Education Systems for a New Century (American Council on Education/Oryx Press, 1999).
Charles B. Reed, "The Future Cannot Wait," Change 39 (November/December 2006), pp. 28-34.
U.S. Census Bureau, 2007 American Community Survey, Table C15001: Sex by age by educational attainment for the population 18 years and over, American FactFinder Downloadable Tables, www.factfinder.census.gov (accessed December 17, 2008).
Public Policy Institute of California, Californians and Higher Education (San Francisco: 2007).