FROM CHAOS TO ORDER AND BACK?A Revisionist Reflection on the California Master Plan for Higher Education@50 and Thoughts About its Future


In 1960, California developed a "master plan" for its already famed public higher education system. It was and continues to be arguably the single most influential effort to plan the future of a system of higher education in the annals of American higher education. Despite popular belief, however, the California Master Plan for Higher Education is more important for what it preserved than what it created. There is much confusion regarding exactly how the Master Plan came about, what it said and did not say, and what portions of it are still relevant today. This essay provides a brief historical tour on how California developed its pioneering higher education system, what the 1960 Master Plan accomplished, and a discussion on the current problems facing this system in the midst of the Great Recession. The immense success of California's network of public colleges and universities has been its historic accomplishment of what I have called in a previous book, The California Idea: the goal of broad access combined with the development of high quality, mission differentiated, and affordable higher education institutions first articulated by California Progressives. Historically, this system has been a great success, with an ability to grow with the state's population and effectively meet rising demand for access to higher education. However, the fiscal health and productivity of California's higher education system has eroded over the past three or so decades. The Great Recession has greatly accelerated this trajectory. Over the past two years, public funding for higher education has been reduced by some $1 billion. Tuition and fees have climbed, but have not produced sufficient revenue to mitigate large budget cuts. The University of California and the California State University have limited enrollment for the first time, and in the midst of growing enrollment demand. California's community colleges have not been able to meet enrollment demand. There is the prospect of continued cuts in the 2010-11 fiscal year as federal stimulus funds for state governments disappear. California is projected to grow from its current 37 million people to some 60 million in 2050. In addition, President Obama has set a national goal for the US to once again have among the highest educational attainment rates in the world. This would require the nation to produce over 8 million additional degrees; California's "fair share" would be approximately 1 million additional degrees - a number made larger, because of the state's current rank among the bottom ten states in degree production relative to the size of its population. This raises a number of big questions: Can California sustain the system as outlined by the 1960 Master Plan? Even if it can, is it, as the British say, "fit for purpose?" Or is it outdated for producing robust levels of socioeconomic mobility and the trained labor needed for tomorrow's economy? How can California retain the California Idea of broad access and quality academic programs? While adequate funding is a major variable, this essay identifies a number of serious problems with the structure of California's higher education system that make meeting Obama's goal extremely difficult, if not impossible to achieve. These include macro effects of too many part-time students, an imbalance in 2-year and 4-year college enrollment, inadequate financial aid, and the need for a new public college and university funding model. A failure to pursue "smart growth" in the public higher education system will lead to a "Brazilian Effect," in which for-profits expand dramatically to help partially fill growing demand for higher education probably at possibly even greater cost to students and government, and with often low-quality academic degree programs.

Publication date: 
May 1, 2010
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)
FROM CHAOS TO ORDER AND BACK?A Revisionist Reflection on the California Master Plan for Higher Education@50 and Thoughts About its Future by John Aubrey Douglass. CSHE 7.10 (May 2010)