California Education Dialogue

A public policy dialogue produced by Information Renaissance
with support from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation,
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Master Plan Overview

For almost 40 years, postsecondary education in California has been guided by the Master Plan for Higher Education. The Master Plan today is not a single written report; rather, this terminology refers to the combined set of reports, statutes, and resolutions that have been adopted since, and which flow from, the 1960 report A Master Plan for Higher Education in California: 1960-1975. The Master Plan has served as the framework for the dramatic expansion – an eight-fold increase in enrollment from 1960 to today– of California’s higher education system, based in the tenets of affordable access to high quality education for all Californians.

Historical Background

Prior to 1960 higher education in California already was a three-part system: the University of California, governed by a Board of Regents; the State Colleges, governed by the State Board of Education; and the junior colleges, also governed by the State Board but locally operated by either high school, unified, or junior college districts. At the end of the 1950’s, California’s higher education system faced a coming decade of enormous enrollment growth (the “tidal wave” of the baby boom generation), limited fiscal resources, and disjointed governance structures. Many legislators were aggressively advocating the development of new four-year university campuses in their districts in response to the anticipated enrollment growth. Then-Governor Pat Brown and the Legislature were concerned that, absent statewide planning and intersegmental coordination, the systems of higher education might be expanded in ways that were costly, duplicative, and inefficient and still would not meet California’s need for increased higher education opportunities. A Survey Team was appointed to develop a planning framework for higher education based on two primary principles: (1) provide a high quality collegiate opportunity to every Californian who could benefit from it; and (2) mitigate unwarranted expansion and unhealthy competition among the segments. The resulting Master Plan report recommended to the Legislature frameworks for structure and governance, mission, and function that remain the foundation for California’s higher education system today. The Donahoe Act, passed during a special session of the Legislature in 1960, placed the majority of these recommendations into statute. Some key elements, however, were implemented and remain in force today without being made law.

1960 Master Plan Report

The following were among the principal features of the original Master Plan:

  • Every qualified and interested student was guaranteed access to higher education.
  • Higher education would be tuition-free for California residents. State grants would be increased and could support students’ access to independent institutions.
  • A distinct governing board was established for the CSU as a statewide system.
  • All local community college districts were to be governed by their own boards; district boundaries were modified to cover every geographic region of the state.
  • Primary missions of the segments were delineated as follows:
  • The Community Colleges would offer lower-division academic instruction for transfer as well as general courses and vocational education.
  • The California State University would provide instruction in liberal arts and sciences, “applied” professions, and teacher education. Research at the CSU would be consistent with its instructional function.
  • The University of California would provide undergraduate, graduate, and professional instruction, and would have sole authority to grant doctoral and professional degrees. The UC also was designated as the primary provider of state-supported research.
  • The eligibility pool of the UC was determined as the top 1/8 of high school graduates, and of the CSU as the top 1/3 (down from the top 15 percent and 50 percent, respectively). These policies limiting UC and CSU enrollment to the most academically qualified students were adopted by the systems, rather than being placed in statute. All high school graduates and others over 18 years of age would be eligible for the community colleges.
  • Standards were established for transfer of community college students to the UC and CSU, and a 40:60 ratio of lower to upper division students was established for these segments to ensure a healthy transfer function. New four-year campus construction was prohibited until sufficient community college campuses could be developed.
  • Policies were promoted to develop and retain faculty within the state, including increasing salaries and rewarding teaching practices in the tenure process.

The Master Plan committed the state to fully fund enrollment expansion. At the same time, the confluence of eligibility and transfer recommendations had the intended, practical effect of modifying UC and state college enrollment patterns to redirect 50,000 students to the community colleges, thereby significantly reducing costs to the state. The Master Plan was not just a framework of principles: it also specifically planned for the location and type of campuses to be built in the coming years.

1973 Report

In 1971 the Legislature created the first joint committee to review the Master Plan. This comprehensive examination proposed a set of goals for California’s higher education system, and within the context of those goals reviewed and reaffirmed many of the precepts of the original Master Plan. The 1973 committee report, and subsequent implementation legislation, created student diversity goals to foster a higher education community that was representative of the demographics of the state and of high school graduates. The independent California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC) was created to foster coordination among the segments, as well as to be responsible for an ongoing process of long-range planning for higher education (this latter function was not fully authorized or funded). The report and implementing resolution also encouraged UC and CSU to extend the concept of differentiation of function – building on strengths and reducing competition – to individual campuses. The 1973 process led to faculty and student representation on the governing boards of the segments.

1989 Report

The Legislature undertook another review of the Master Plan in the 1980’s. Both an advisory citizen’s commission and a joint legislative committee were created to comprehensively examine higher education issues. Of special concern at that time were the condition of community colleges and the condition of the transfer function that is essential to maintaining and fostering the principle of universal, multi-staged access to higher education at the core of the Master Plan. After two years’ work, the commission submitted two reports to the legislative committee, one on community colleges and one that was more general. The joint committee’s subsequent primary report again reaffirmed the fundamental structure created by the Master Plan. The report was grounded in the emerging demographic shifts of California’s population and promoted diversity in every facet of higher education as a valuable condition of the learning experience and societal development; these recommendations were not placed in statute, however. The 1989 report also led to a significantly strengthened transfer system to assure successful community college students a place in the university systems. Numerous reforms of community college governance and function emerged in the two years subsequent to recommendations on those issues. Additionally, all three systems’ missions were modified to include public service as a result of the committee’s work. The 1989 report recommended a significant increase in student financial aid; this began to be realized only after the recession of the early 1990’s ended.

1990’s Recession

Common to all three master plan processes is the optimistic underlying premise that the state would meet its commitment of funding higher education’s ever-growing enrollment demand. In fact, shortly after the 1989 review reaffirmed the Master Plan, California entered the worst recession since the Great Depression, and state budgetary support of higher education plummeted. The result was encroachment on every tenet of the Master Plan. Access was dramatically reduced; affordability suffered as student fees increased 80 percent to 300 percent over three years; and quality was marginally eroded as class sizes grew, course offerings declined, and support services were curtailed. Even in these circumstances, however, the governance and planning aspects of the Master Plan were preserved, as the segments maintained the authority to determine which compromises were necessary to provide a quality education to as many students as possible.

In response to these circumstances, in 1993 the Assembly Higher Education Committee undertook a “focused review” of elements of the Master Plan to define goals and policy priorities for higher education in times of reduced resources. In mid-review, this legislative committee changed ground to allow the segments to take the lead in determining those priorities. The committee took action to promote accountability, efficiency, and cost containment, as well as to expand financial aid, but the measures to implement these reforms were unsuccessful.

Planning For The Future

As demonstrated in times of growth and decline, the Master Plan has had one especially profound effect on higher education in California. It has provided significant stability to the systems, by determining not only their roles, but by determining the roles of state lawmakers and policymakers, as well. This legacy may be seen in the Legislature today, as new legislative and budgetary policies for higher education are consistent with the Master Plan’s framework, and even build on it by continually clarifying the missions and governance authority of the segments.

The conditions facing higher education as we enter the next century may again threaten the promise of the Master Plan, even in prosperous economic times. Enrollment is expected to grow by 450,000 students, or 20 percent, in the next six years. Constitutional and legal constraints commit a significant portion of the state budget, with the result that a shrinking portion of state resources are available for higher education. Moreover, that remaining portion is shared among prisons and general government; as a result, the state may not have available the resources needed to meet its Master Plan commitment in the next decade. Populations are growing in geographic areas that do not have the necessary educational infrastructure in place. The ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic diversity of future student populations, as well as the diversity of their life circumstances, dictate that new modes of educational services be offered to meet students’ needs. In the face of these and other dynamic conditions that higher education must address, it is necessary to reassess the Master Plan to ensure that it will successfully guide higher education in the next decade and that the state can adequately plan to provide the guarantees of access, affordability, and quality to the next generation of California students.

By contrast to higher education, the K-12 education system operates without a Master Plan, without any clear framework of governance, function, or policy. As a consequence, California’s schools operate in an environment of significant instability that impacts their ability to plan and perform in a manner that maximizes student achievement.
At the core of this instability is a convoluted, multi-layered system of governance in which roles and scope of authority are not clearly defined. State policy is determined by the Governor and the Legislature through budget appropriation and legislation; the electorate, through initiatives; the courts; the State Board of Education; the Superintendent of Public Instruction, through administrative program decisions; and the Secretary of Education. Beyond this, there are numerous governing and administrative entities at the regional, county, district, and school site levels. It is not surprising that in such an environment contradictory laws and regulations are imposed on schools; that major policy shifts occur annually, often without adequate supports; that those policy initiatives are not coordinated with one another; or that responsibility for funding and administering programs are divorced from one another.

Over the past 30 years, the K-12 education system has experienced the erosion of its founding governance principle – local governance, that can best respond to local needs– by the confluence of many constitutional amendments, laws, court rulings, and budgetary requirements. Few of these mandates have been promulgated with consideration either of their impact on student success in relation to one another, or of which entity can best implement them to maximize success. Creating a Master Plan to govern K-12 education can serve to improve the environment within which our schools function. A Master Plan can support student learning by defining appropriate roles for all the stakeholders and preserving those roles in California’s policy-making arenas.

Beyond this need within the K-12 system, there is an increasing awareness of the need to develop stronger linkages between K-12 and the postsecondary education systems. Each of these systems informs the others, each is dependent on the others, and each can strengthen the others, all to the benefit of Californians who increasingly depend on the opportunity to pursue learning at every stage of their lives.

It is in this context that the Legislature has created a new joint committee to develop a master plan for education in California that applies to instruction from kindergarten through all levels of the University experience. With the Master Plan for Higher Education serving as a foundation, the committee will reexamine its principles and guidelines in the context of the needs of the next decade, construct a framework for K-12 education, undertake a critical examination of the many issues that span multiple systems, and create a comprehensive master plan to guarantee the promise of high quality education to every Californian.

August 24, 1999