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How California’s College System Lost Its Way: Revisiting the State’s Master Plan for Higher Education

How California’s College System Lost Its Way: Revisiting the State’s Master Plan for Higher Education

Once the envy of the world, California’s public college and university networks have been plagued by mission creep, confusing and diluting their ability to achieve the purpose for which they were originally designed. Incremental state legislation over the years has reduced the once independent and robust tiered system — California Community Colleges (CCC), California State University (CSU), and the University of California (UC) — to an amalgamation of misaligned and competing colleges and universities where academic excellence and student needs have been deprioritized while administrative budgets have ballooned.

The early development of California was based on economic opportunities characterized by a population of mobile people moving from opportunity to opportunity. Prior to the “Gilded Age” — spanning the years 1865 and 1904 — when America became an economic industrial superpower, early education was traditionally left to families and the local community, and higher education was usually provided by religious and charitable institutions. The societal shift toward urbanization created a venue for government to build and grow universities established in high population regions. This was especially true in California. 

In the 1950s, the significant population growth in California created a need to expand accessible higher education within the state. In response, Clark Kerr, President of the University of California at the time, and then-Governor Pat Brown created the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education in California. Rather than a single written document or piece of legislation, it was a set of key higher education policy goals. 

Before the Master Plan, there were 6 UCs, 16 CSUs, and 63 CCCs all seemingly independent of each other. The universities provided broad education without any cross-university planning or coordinated goals. The three-tier plan would categorize, interconnect, and unify the schools by placing students into a structure that was the best fit for their career goals, serve varying educational needs, and reduce the waste of resources utilized by the UC, CSU, and CCC.

The UCs were created to concentrate on research and advanced education for students in the top 12.5 percent of their high school graduating class. The goal was to give these students the opportunity for in-depth and specialized studies to produce experts in the sciences, humanities, and other fields beyond four-year undergraduate degrees. 

The CSUs were established to offer a broader education for students graduating in the top 33.3% of their high school class. To grow the workforce of the state, the education was specific for careers relevant to each university’s regional economic needs by concentrating on practical applications of knowledge, generally accomplished with four-year undergraduate degrees.

The CCCs were intended to be accessible to all students, even those who struggled with high school. These community colleges are focused on being affordable and flexible for students to explore and decide on their educational path. Community colleges were designed to provide an associate degree that is easily transferable to UCs or CSUs.

Over the years, however, the distinctions between these three systems have become muddled as the Master Plan has been repeatedly modified by the state legislature.

There are a few key pieces of legislation that have updated the Master Plan into its current state. To set the framework, the legislature officially adopted the Donahoe Higher Education Act (1960) to put the original plan into action. While the Donahoe Act laid the foundation by outlining the allocation of funds, supporting key goals, and setting up a rigid framework, it ultimately made it challenging to adapt to California’s inconsistent educational landscapes in the future. 

The Donahoe Act directed funding based on the roles and missions of the three school tiers. For example, the introduction of new programs that responded to emerging fields of study or local workforce needs at universities was restricted in order to avoid the duplication of resources. The balance between who controls the decision on how to allocate funding also became cloudy. In addition, the changes in technology, student demographics, and workforce requirements made it difficult for state politicians to make needed adaptations. The Donahoe Higher Education Act made huge strides in protecting funding to all segments of the Master Plan while adding layers of bureaucracy, administrative bloat, and increased complexity of goals. This countered efforts to reduce duplication and put budgetary pressures on the state system.

Nearly two decades later, The Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act (1978), or HEERA, enhanced collective bargaining rights for faculty, staff, and all other employees. HEERA increased the overhead costs of running institutions by tipping the scale in negotiations significantly in favor of the employee unions, which allowed substantial wage and benefit increases without legislative oversight. 

According to a report by California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, “Unlike the case for the [memoranda of understandings] MOUs negotiated under the Ralph C. Dills Act**, the MOUs negotiated between higher education employers and their employees are not subject to either review or approval of the Legislature.” This increase of union power resulted in notable budgetary pressures on the state system. With the leverage imbalance, strikes and disruptions became a key tool for employees to counterbalance the negotiation power of the administration. The focus for the colleges soon became centered around addressing the needs of employees against other institutional priorities, such as maintaining academic quality, infrastructure, and affordability, which have become lost in the push for compensation and funding of educators. 

A decade later, Assembly Bill 1725, enacted in 1988, was perhaps the largest blow to the effectiveness and streamlining of faculty within the system. The bill introduced changes to the structure of community colleges by giving faculty greater involvement in decision-making processes over curriculum development, hiring, and program review. Although the bill was intended to enhance the value proposition of attending CCCs and build a framework to help students in achieving their education and career goals, ultimately, the bill required greater bureaucratic intransigence and reduced efficiencies by creating committees of decision-makers. Further, implementing the legislation constrained resources and multiplied administrative burdens incongruent with the intent of the Master Plan.

Legislation passed over the last decade also ignores the intent and purpose of the California Master Plan: 

  • Senate Bill 850 (2014) and Assembly Bill 927 (2021) extended a pilot program indefinitely that allows CCCs to offer bachelor’s degree programs. Instead of focusing on preparing students to transfer to UCs or CSUs, CCCs will be duplicating the programs offered there. 
  • Assembly Bill 91 (2023) allows students from Mexico, who live close to the US border, to pay in-state tuition rates, forcing California taxpayers to cover the education costs of non-residents who don’t pay state taxes.
  • Assembly Bill 656 (2023) allows CSUs to offer doctoral programs, originally only intended to be available via the UCs. By doing so, the legislation places the CSUs in the position to directly compete with the UCs instead of targeting different audiences as set out in the Master Plan. Now, the two systems are competing against each other for top professors, resources, and funding.

However, there have been a few bills that have made minor adjustments consistent with the original Master Plan. Assembly Bill 1291 (2023) establishes a plan for students who earn an associate degree to have a transfer program path to transfer from CCCs to UCs. 

When it was introduced, the 1960 Master Plan was universally praised for its commitment to accessible, high-quality education for all students. Yet the framework for California’s higher education system has veered from the original mission amid conflicting visions and interests. The distinct roles laid out in the Master Plan have become blurred; in many aspects, the UCs, CSUs, and CCCs schools now appear indistinguishable. 

Growth in bureaucracy has led to administrative bloat and posed challenges to the operational efficiency of California’s education institutions, diverting attention from the students’ needs to the faculty and union demands. For example, at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California at San Diego, non-faculty employees on campus currently outnumber students. In 2015, the number of administration employees had ballooned by over 60% over the previous decade, far outpacing the tenure-track faculty. The increase in non-teaching and non-research jobs, resulting in an increase of student-to-administrative ratios, has become the subject of debate in recent years.

At the same time, costs in public higher education have increased despite the fact that population growth in California has significantly slowed down. According to CalMatters, CSU tuition has grown by approximately 900%, adjusted for inflation, in the last 40 years. From 2019 to 2022, enrollment in UC only increased by 2%, CSU saw a 6% decline, and CCC enrollment decreased by 17%. Last fall, the California State University’s Board of Trustees voted for a tuition hike of 34% over the next 5 years to compensate for spending. 

Radical shifts in ideological approaches and pedagogies threaten to further imperil the state’s public colleges and universities. A case in point is the story of Daymon Johnson, who sued California Community Colleges last July after CCC policies demanded Daymon to “employ teaching, learning, and professional practices that reflect” the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) agenda. The DEI governance has forced teachers to include race in subjects where it doesn’t belong; in Johnson’s case, chemistry. In California, many teachers’ academic freedom and the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech have been hampered by DEI. This ideological push has not only taken over the lectures in the classroom but has also taken over admissions and faculty employment.

While affirmative action was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina (2023) and Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College (2023), universities in California have found a loophole through the utilization of “DEI Statements.” A DEI Statement is a written piece that describes the prospective faculty or student’s “commitment” and “contributions” to diversity, equity, and inclusion. These can include students’ previous experiences and future aspirations. UC Berkeley’s Initiative to Advance Faculty Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Life Sciences came out with data showing that the screening of applicants with DEI statements led to an increase in Black and Hispanic faculty hires while decreasing white and Asian hires. The impact of identity politics has diverted attention away from academic excellence and instead pushed forward a politicized agenda that puts DEI ahead of experience and qualifications for a faculty position. If we prop up a system that values diversity over professional experience, the ability to provide the best education for students will be put into serious jeopardy. Universities should put aside ideology in favor of providing the best education for students.


The Master Plan of Higher Education was lauded due to its approach of focusing on having a tiered system that worked together instead of trying to outdo each other. Today, a more streamlined policy plan is needed to fix the inefficiencies California’s system faces. Returning to a clearer division of purpose, as envisioned in the original Master Plan, would reestablish the distinct three categories of higher education designed to serve the diverse needs of California students. This would reverse the move toward individual, competing institutions of higher education.

The current path that policymakers, educators, and stakeholders are engaged in is troubling — the rising costs, inflation of degrees, and indistinguishable differences between the three systems. Revisiting the principles of the Master Plan can yield greater innovation, improved efficiency, and enhance the quality of education for all students.

**Established in 1977, the Ralph C. Dills Act governs collective bargaining for state government employees. The Act allows state employees to organize, form, join, and participate in the activities of employee organizations of their choosing for representation on all matters of employer-employee relations. Employees must “meet and confer in good faith” under this Act. Higher education employer-employee relations are governed by the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act.

Peter Constant is an intern with the California Policy Center and a student at Jessup University.


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