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Walters: Will New Measures Fix California’s Colleges?



California politicians and educators have long toyed with the idea of overhauling the state's college master plan. (GV Wire File)
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As California’s population swelled in the post-World War II era, thanks to a flood of newcomers from other states and the postwar baby boom, it had a major impact on the state’s colleges.

New Californians, many of them veterans seeking education under the GI bill, and, eventually, the baby boomers sought college degrees as tickets to prosperous futures. Meanwhile, the state’s economy needed educated workers as it evolved from agriculture and other resource-based sectors into manufacturing, logistics and technology.

‘Master Plan’ for California’s College System

Dan Walters


There was, however, little or no logic to how the University of California, state colleges (later universities) and an expanding array of locally governed community colleges met the demand. Each segment, and often each college, decided which students would be admitted and what courses would be offered.

As the collegiate chaos worsened, Gov. Pat Brown, elected in 1958, proposed that the three be folded into a single higher education system, as other states were doing. However, his proposal didn’t sit well with those running the schools and the upshot was a compromise called the “Master Plan for Higher Education.”

Adopted in 1960, the plan sought to define each segment’s role, minimize competition for students and money, and make movement of students from one level to another seamless.

The University of California would take in the brightest 12.5% of high school graduates, conduct research and award doctorate degrees in a variety of fields. State colleges would admit the top 33% of high school grads, train professionals such as teachers and engineers and award master’s degrees. Community colleges would handle anyone else “capable of benefiting from instruction,” award two-year associate degrees and prepare students for transfers into four-year schools.

Plan Soon Fell Apart

That was the theory, anyway, and it kind of worked for a decade or two, but began to fall apart for many reasons — demographic, economic, financial and political — and has largely existed on paper during the last few decades.

Periodically, politicians and educators have toyed with the idea of overhauling the master plan, but in higher education, as with other public programs, inertia reigns. Those who wield authority, however flawed, are generally unwilling to risk it via systemic change.

Occasionally, the Legislature has tinkered with aspects of the plan but the three sectors have steadily become more competitive and the theoretically seamless pathway for students to climb through the systems has often been choked. The state universities sought, with some success, to penetrate UC’s monopoly on doctorate degrees and the community colleges, likewise, gained the experimental ability to offer four-year degrees in a few fields.

Long Overdue Reform Effort

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a sheaf of higher education bills, some of which purport to shore up master plan weaknesses.

“We’re turning commitments into reality by ensuring that our students have more access to high-quality educational opportunities, creating a change of course for generations to come and bolstering California’s innovation economy,” Newsom said. “Californians have thrived at our world class universities for decades, but not everyone has had similar access. Today that’s changing.”

The most important measures, Assembly Bill 928 and AB 1111, are aimed at making it easier for students to begin higher education in low-cost community colleges and transfer into UC and the state university systems by eliminating petty curricular conflicts.

Another important one, AB 927, extends the experimental ability of community colleges to award baccalaureate degrees in technical fields that the four-year colleges have shunned.

We don’t know whether the package will improve California’s lagging ability to provide the highly trained workforce that its economy needs. But it’s a commendable, long-overdue effort.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.

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