BEYOND THE MASTER PLAN: The Case for Restructuring Baccalaureate Education in California


Although a stunning success in many ways, California’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education has been a conspicuous failure in one respect: California ranks near the bottom of the states in the proportion of its college-age population that attains a baccalaureate degree. California’s poor record of B.A. attainment is an unforeseen consequence of the Master Plan’s restrictions on access to 4-year baccalaureate institutions. In a cost-cutting move, the framers of the Master Plan restricted eligibility for admission to the University of California and the state colleges (later the California State University) to the top eighth and top third, respectively, of the state’s high school graduates. As a result, 2-year institutions have absorbed the vast majority of enrollment growth in California higher education. In addition to their important role in vocational education, the California Community Colleges now enroll between 40% and 50% of all students seeking a B.A., including those at both 2-year and 4-year institutions. Enrollment at 4-year institutions, however, has not kept pace. California now ranks last among the states in the proportion of its college students that attend a 4-year institution. The paper presents comparative data demonstrating the powerful relationship between 4-year college enrollment and B.A. attainment across the 50 states. Although California’s low rate of baccalaureate attainment is sometimes blamed on the failure of community colleges to produce more transfers, the data point to a more fundamental problem -- lack of 4-year baccalaureate enrollment capacity. The single most critical factor for California to improve B.A. attainment is to expand 4-year enrollment capacity. Yet building expensive new 4-year campuses is an unlikely option given the state’s current and foreseeable fiscal circumstances. The alternative is to restructure California’s existing postsecondary system. The paper reviews a variety of baccalaureate reform models that have been introduced in other states. The most promising of these models involve collaborations between community colleges and state universities to create new kinds of intermediary, “hybrid” institutions. Examples include university centers and 2-year university branch campuses. Under the university center model, 4-year universities offer upper-division coursework at community college campuses, enabling “place bound” students to complete their baccalaureate degree program there. Under the 2-year university branch model, some community colleges are converted, in effect, into lower-division satellites of state universities, thereby expanding capacity at the 4-year level and eliminating the need for the traditional transfer process. What these and other hybrid models have in common is that they help bridge the divide between 2-year and 4-year institutions, enabling more students to enter baccalaureate programs directly from high school and progress seamlessly to their degrees. Amending the Master Plan in the manner proposed here need not alter its essential features. While preserving the distinctive missions of UC, CSU, and the California Community Colleges, the need now is to build their capacity to work together as a system to improve baccalaureate attainment – the one mission that all three segments share.

Publication date: 
November 1, 2010
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)
BEYOND THE MASTER PLAN: The Case for Restructuring Baccalaureate Education in California by Saul Geiser and Richard C. Atkinson. CSHE.16.10 (November 2010)