California Forum

Viewpoints: A new vision for California public higher education

Let’s just say it: the California Master Plan for Higher Education is outdated and no longer serves the needs of a much larger and much more diverse California.

Within the past two years, the Public Policy Institute of California, the Little Hoover Commission and the Committee for Economic Development all issued reports calling for major reforms in the way California governs higher education. The governor, legislators and students are also weighing in on the need to change the 1960 Master Plan that formalized the structure and mission of the California community colleges, the California State University and the University of California. Last month a blow came from the outside when researchers at the University of Pennsylvania released a report titled “From Master Plan to Mediocrity.”

Where do we go from here? It seems that California has reached the tipping point of consensus about the problem. But so far there is no agreement about what comes next.

At the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at Sacramento State, we think it’s worth considering a regional approach to higher education planning to bring it closer to communities and their distinct needs. Our institute recently published “A New Vision for California Higher Education,” intended to inspire conversations leading to a plan suited to today’s needs.

The Master Plan earned acclaim for its innovative approach to ensuring access to an affordable and quality higher education. But the plan is out of sync with conditions 54 years later. The population has doubled and diversified; demographic and economic trends have spawned inequalities across regions. In 1960, only a small fraction of high school students went to college; today most people need some education or training beyond high school.

In 1960, instructional technology consisted of lectures, books and chalkboards; today technology offers new possibilities for serving students in ways that transcend institutional boundaries. In 1960, Californians saw great public benefit to investing tax dollars in the higher education of their fellow citizens. This is less true today; colleges and universities receive a smaller portion of the state budget and students pay a much larger share of the cost.

One promising development is that the three new leaders of California’s public higher education systems have pledged to collaborate to improve student success. They have stated the need to make the Master Plan more relevant to the times. We applaud their focus on improving opportunities for California’s students and communities. They preside over world class institutions, but, as a whole, higher education is not meeting the needs of Californians, as a few numbers illustrate:

• California ranks 29th among states in the percent of young adults with an associate degree or higher.

• California ranks 45th in bachelor’s degrees awarded per population, ages 18-24.

• The share of residents, ages 18-24, enrolled in college ranges from 25 percent to 54 percent across regions of the state.

• Forty percent of whites, ages 25 and over, have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 22 percent of blacks and 11 percent of Latinos.

Under the vision we propose for discussion, the collaboration pledged by system leaders would play out significantly at the regional level. A regional consortium would be established for each major economic region of the state to devise strategies to increase college and career readiness, access and completion, and to align higher education with regional economies. Consortia would comprise major public and private postsecondary institutions in the region, representatives of K-12 schools and regional employers.

Consortia would develop plans based on the needs of their regions and identify the roles of regional institutions for meeting those needs. Institutions would specialize more than they do today, drawing on the assets of each to deliver cost-effective and quality education. Technology would ensure access to programs not available in students’ home institutions.

System leaders would work with state lawmakers and a new Office of Higher Education to modify policies and funding to encourage colleges and universities to become even stronger partners in their regions than they are today. The governing bodies of the three public higher education systems would build their budgets and policies to fulfill their institutions’ roles as specified in regional plans. This vision validates and supports the regional collaboration already underway to address distinct regional needs.

The Office of Higher Education would ensure that regional plans collectively meet state needs, advise the governor about policies to implement the regional plans and ensure accountability to taxpayers for a quality, cost-effective and dynamic system of higher education to help California’s distinct regions thrive in the 21st century.