On the Durability of The Master Plan in the 21st Century, or “If it’s breaking, why isn’t anyone fixing it?”

by | Feb 2004

February 2004

In September, 2002 the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento hosted a conference called “Envisioning a State of Learning: Moving California’s Master Plan for Higher Education into the 21st Century.” We planned this conference to examine whether the Master Plan for Higher Education, which was hailed in 1960 as an enlightened and visionary strategy for the challenges of its time, is still viable today given all that has changed since then. The issues raised at the conference gave considerable cause for concern about the capacity of entrenched governance approaches to deal with contemporary problems. For example, we learned, among other things, that:

  • California has no plan for accommodating the enrollment growth that constitutes “Tidal Wave II”;
  • the Master Plan fosters more attention to maintaining distinctions among the segments than to cooperation among them that would better serve students;
  • the transfer process between community colleges and four-year universities is cumbersome and problematic for students;
  • statewide coordination of higher education is inadequate;
  • alignment between K-12 and higher education is poor;
  • unacceptable differences in educational achievement persist across ethnic/racial groups;
  • accountability for the outcomes of higher education is largely absent; and
  • the California Master Plan is no longer seen as a model for higher education governance in many states and countries.

It should not be surprising that the structures put in place in 1960 are overwhelmed by today’s issues. The requirements of a higher education enterprise are fundamentally different today. In 1960 our public colleges and universities served a small and homogeneous portion of the young adult population. Today’s public colleges and universities must serve a large and diverse population of students whose demographic characteristics and attendance patterns are profoundly different than in 1960. And they must do so within a more competitive environment – both with respect to other postsecondary institutions and other demands on public resources. The political will and public dollar that funded the Master Plan expansion of the 1960s and 1970s are not as plentiful for today’s higher education challenges.

What is surprising, however, is that most of the problems and most of the criticisms of the Master Plan that were voiced at our conference have been heard consistently for 30 years. So, rather than ask whether the changes of the last 40 years have strained the Master Plan beyond its capacity, the more salient question facing Californians who worry about the ability of the state to effectively educate its people is:

Why has the original Master Plan for Higher Education successfully withstood repeated challenges to its assumptions and values as the world around it has changed fundamentally, and what kinds of threshold changes will be required in order for a new approach to higher education planning to take hold?

Before I present my theory of the Master Plan’s durability, let me illustrate the concerns that have been raised over the years. Let me also observe that the fundamental feature of the Master Plan was the formalization of three separate segments of higher education (University of California, the state colleges – now the California State University, and the California Community Colleges) with carefully differentiated missions and admissions criteria. Eligibility was limited to the top 1/8 and top 1/3 of high school class rank for UC and CSU, respectively, and for the community colleges to “all who could benefit.” This structure was envisioned as an efficient means to accomplish the fundamental commitment of access to all who could benefit.

The Master Plan envisioned that the community colleges would provide the first two years of baccalaureate education to the majority of college-bound students and therefore required the four-year institutions to reduce their proportions of lower division students and increase the proportion of upper division transfers from the community colleges. Based on 15-year enrollment growth projections, the Master Plan “redirected” an estimated 50,000 lower division students from the four-year institutions to the community colleges with the promise of transfer. The Master Plan assigned the UC exclusive right to award the doctorate and other professional degrees and gave CSU the authority to award baccalaureate and masters degrees. CSU could award the doctorate only jointly with the UC. At the time, this strict differentiation of mission was unique to state governance of higher education and was seen as necessary to promote orderly growth and reduce wasteful competition among institutions (more on this later).

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