McConnell's plan provided for long-term investigations, with a need for a large staff and appropriate facilities. The first major study proposed was entitled "The Diversity of American Higher Education.” The proposed "Center for the Study of Higher Education" would focus on "basic research" on policy issues and not be an agency for studying the UC's own issues exclusively.
As formulated by Kerr and McConnell, the Center was funded with five general purposes: to
Serve as a University-wide rather than a School of Education organization;
Develop a research program involving staff in several disciplines;
Provide for progressively widening inclusion of faculty members in the continuing research;
Conduct special conferences under the auspices of an All-University agency;
Support research fellows of various grades and from various fields in the research activity of the Center.
A two-year grant was then approved by the Board of Trustees of the Carnegie Corporation of New York establishing The Center for the Study of Higher Education in 1956. Subsequently, the Carnegie Corporation funded a five-year study by the Center focused on the undergraduate experience of students in American colleges and universities. The Carnegie Corporation also funded a five-year grant to support the administration of the Center. McConnell held the title Chairman of the Center. In Fall 1957, it was housed in temporary quarters "in an old house on the corner of Bancroft Way and Piedmont."
One of the first significant studies under the Center was Lyman Glenny's, The Autonomy of Public Colleges, published in 1959, the first major scholarly study of state systems of higher education, completed while he was a faculty member at Sac State—California State University, Sacramento. From the founding of the Center, research on higher education history, in particular, the history of California higher education and the California Master Plan of 1960, provided a major theme for Center research, interactions and presentations.