2010 marks the 50th anniversary of California’s famed Master Plan for Higher Education, arguably the single most influential effort to plan the future of a system of higher education in the annals of American higher education. This essay builds on the analysis offered in a previous CSHE research paper (“From Chaos to Order and Back”) by discussing the major challenges facing California’s higher education system, and offering a possibly pathway to reforms and institution-building essential for bolstering socioeconomic mobility and greater economic competitiveness. Most critics and observers of California’s system remain focused on incremental and largely marginal improvements, transfixed by the state’s persistent financial problems and inability to engage in long-range planning for a population that is projected to grow from approximately 37 million to some 60 million by 2050. 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 of studies indicate that California’s higher education system will not keep pace with labor needs in the state, let alone affording opportunities for socioeconomic mobility that once characterized California. California needs to re-imagine its once vibrant higher education system. The objective is to offer a vision of a more mature system of higher education that could emerge over the next twenty years; in essence, a logical next stage in a system that has hardly changed in the last five decades. Informed by the history of the tripartite system, its strengths and weaknesses over time, and the reform efforts of economic competitors throughout the world who are making significant investments in their own tertiary institutions, I offer a “re-imagined” network of colleges and universities and a plan for “Smart Growth.” I paint a picture that builds on California’s existing institutions, predicated on a more diverse array of institutional types, and rooted in the historical idea of mission differentiation. This includes setting educational attainment goals for the state; shifting more students to 4-year institutions including UC and CSU; reorganizing the California Community Colleges to include a set of 4-year institutions, another set of “Transfer Focused” campuses, and having these colleges develop a “gap” year program for students out of high school to better prepare for higher education. It also encompasses creating a new Polytechnic University sector, a new California Open University that is primarily focused on adult learners; and developing a new funding model that recognizes the critical role of tuition, and the market for international students that can generate income for higher education and attract top talent to California. There is also a need to recognize that for the US to increase degree attainment rates, the federal government will need to become a more engaged partner with the states. For the near and possibly long-term, most state governments are in a fiscally weakened position that makes any large-scale investment in expanding access improbable. Because of the size of its population alone, California is the canary in the coal mine. If the US is to make major strides toward President Obama’s goal, it cannot do it without California.

Publication date: 
October 1, 2010
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)
RE-IMAGINING CALIFORNIA HIGHER EDUCATION by John Aubrey Douglass. CSHE.14.10 (October 2010)