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Introduction
 
The California Master Plan: Reducing Competition
 
Master Plan Provisions for Collaboration: Student Transfer and the Joint Doctorate
 
Additional Areas of Collaboration
 
Tidal Wave II: Enrollment Growth and Fiscal Constraint
 
Closing Observations
 
Appendix
 
Acknowledgments
 
References
 
About the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education
 

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Page 6 of 10

Closing Observations

Of the areas of collaboration examined here, the transfer function is the most critical. It is the glue that holds the California Master Plan together, the key to maintaining higher education opportunity. The egalitarian aspects of California higher education—the open door, second chances, public credibility, and political viability—depend on effective transfer. More important, effective transfer will be crucial in educating the next generations of Californians who are now moving in unprecedented numbers through the elementary and secondary schools. Greater in number and increasingly ethnically diverse, these generations will reflect the demographic shifts that have characterized not only California, but also other Western and Southwestern states. Both the Master Plan’s differentiation of admissions pools and the physical capacities of the segments dictate that most of these students will begin their college careers in a community college.

During the decade leading to the onset of the “tidal wave” of new students, California has underperformed in student achievement of baccalaureate degrees, a crucial indicator of educational attainment and opportunity. Over the past 20 years, a number of reviews of higher education in the state, both internal and external, have called attention to this problem. In fact, the state’s decline in baccalaureate degree activity in the 1990s came in the wake of a series of policy reviews and legislated community college “reform” initiatives in the late 1980s Commission for the Review of the Master Plan 1987; Joint Committee for the Review 1989; OECD 1990). Among the public policy experts and higher education leaders we interviewed, none took the position that California’s record in transfers and baccalaureate production is adequate, either for the present or the future. It is widely acknowledged that the purpose of the California Master Plan was to increase opportunity, and that its heavy reliance on transfer was intended to broaden, not constrain, access to the baccalaureate degree.

Although there is renewed commitment to transfer in the state, initiatives will have to produce major improvements in relatively short order—more quickly than has been the case over most of the past four decades. The environment may be difficult for such a transformation:

  • The projected numbers of high school graduates are sufficiently large that California institutions need not fear enrollment decline and consequent loss of financial resources. Therefore it is unlikely that many four-year institutions will need to increase transfers dramatically to maintain or to increase enrollment. And university faculties are likely to prefer to recruit academically qualified high school graduates as freshmen, over the more difficult and complex process of articulation with and transfer from the community colleges.
  • The financial agreements between the state and the university and the state university—agreements that required strengthening of transfer— may be unraveling because of California’s deteriorating economy. We do not doubt the commitment of the current leaders of public higher education to strengthening transfer, even if the state should renege on its partnership agreements. But we do not believe it can be assumed that the transfer initiatives will be sustained in the long term if the university and the state university come under intense fiscal pressure. Recent history is not encouraging in this regard. And while the partnerships with the state and the incentives for improvement of transfer are to be applauded, they may imply to some that such improvements are contingent on additional funding, an “add-on” rather than a core function of California’s public universities.

This essay has described a number of collaborative initiatives besides transfer. We do not know if California would have been better served by more joint doctorates or by the virtual university. Nor do we know whether the college preparation of California high school graduates would be better served by a more unified higher education voice on issues related to admissions testing, nor what the future of joint facilities may be. We believe, however, that the experiences we have discussed indicate that collaboration is not one of the strengths of California higher education, and that underperformance in the crucial area of transfer is only the most significant such example. The strengths of the California system are found primarily in what institutions can do unilaterally, and what they are willing to do under favorable financial circumstances. Yet what is predictable about the demographic and economic future suggests that the pressure to come may be greatest upon the areas of collaboration where the track record and capacity seem weakest.

Collaboration seldom comes easily to institutions of higher education, and this suggests caution in attributing weak collaboration to the structural characteristics of a particular state. But in the area of transfer, quantitative comparisons can be made, and California’s underperformance stands out. California has organized higher education on the principle of “each train on its own track,” or each segment in its own “silo.” The size and scale of the system requires time-consuming consensus building across campuses and among academic senates within each segment, before most collaborative activities— particularly those involving curriculum, admissions and academic programs— can be implemented between and among segments. The character and priorities of each public institution in California are defined primarily by the statewide segment to which it belongs, rather than by the region or community where it is located. This has led to the result that statewide efforts at coordination— whether by the state agency nominally responsible for coordination, or by voluntary association—appear to have had, at best, only marginal influence on the operations of higher education or on service to students.

By any real-world standard, the system or systems of higher education that California crafted in the 1960 Master Plan comprised a bold blueprint for the last four decades of the twentieth century. During those years, the conventional wisdom within and outside of California has been that with good leadership, good will and adequate financing, any problem or issue could be accommodated by that structure. That conventional wisdom has often been justified. We believe, however, that it will be severely tested in the decade ahead. Most significantly, no challenge will be as critical to the state’s future and as demanding of the structure, governance and leadership of its higher education as that of enhancing the effectiveness of transfer. Transfer is the most fundamental test of collaboration.

If the current initiatives of the state and the segments of higher education fail to improve transfer or to produce significantly greater accessibility to, and productivity of, baccalaureate degrees, pressure on the organizational arrangements designed in 1960 will mount. California may eventually be forced to consider alternative organizational and governance structures more conducive to collaboration (perhaps moving to regional organization), options that in the past state and education leaders have been reluctant even to consider.

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