California Master Plan for Higher Education faces new scrutiny, old challenges

UC President Janet Napolitano, left, CSU Chancellor Timothy White and California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris speak after a UC Board of Regents meeting Jan. 22 in San Francisco. The three met to discuss how to address ongoing issues in the state’s higher education system.
Michael Drummond/Senior Staff
UC President Janet Napolitano, left, CSU Chancellor Timothy White and California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris speak after a UC Board of Regents meeting Jan. 22 in San Francisco. The three met to discuss how to address ongoing issues in the state’s higher education system.

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California’s blueprint for public higher education is facing renewed scrutiny as university administrators, state officials and student leaders alike grapple with how a 54-year-old landmark plan fits into the state’s changing economic climate.

The California Master Plan for Higher Education, a framework document conceived in 1959 that coordinates the responsibilities of the UC, CSU and community college systems, has weathered a severe decline in state funding, changing demographics and a complete technological revolution.

Due to these extreme changes, student groups and others are demanding a new master plan altogether, claiming the current policy is out-of-date and in need of reform. Meanwhile, UC President Janet Napolitano and other leaders in higher education have announced a “reinvigoration” of the current plan, aiming to refocus and revitalize the state’s institutions of higher education while maintaining values of accessibility and affordability.

The master plan is not a single document or bill, but rather a series of goals and values — some codified, some not. Many of its contents were passed in a 1960 bill, the Donahoe Higher Education Act, which established differing missions for the UC, CSU and community college systems. Proposed revisions include adapting to a new funding model less reliant on state support and facilitating greater enrollment growth.

This is not the first time the master plan has come under fire. It has seen periodic reviews and revisions since its inception, to varying degrees of success. But many suggest that new leadership in higher education and hopeful economic times may indicate increasing willingness to adapt the plan, although stakeholders differ on how to make these changes.

“There’s a history here since 1960 of various efforts to revise the Master Plan, and they’ve almost always not been terribly successful,” said John Douglass, a research fellow with the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education. “State legislators and lawmakers need to lead changes in the master plan … and leaders in higher education haven’t been involved in the process. So, that may happen again. But there may be an opportunity for a more coherent effort.”

UC spokesperson Dianne Klein said renewed interest in the master plan may be due to the newcomer status of the three leaders in higher education — Napolitano joined the university in September, and Timothy White and Brice Harris took their posts at California State University and the California Community Colleges, respectively, in 2012. Klein also said talk of revisions are an attempt to respond to an ongoing change in funding to the University of California and its counterparts.

march6.masterplan.robinson2-01“When you talk about the master plan, it’s not like there’s a ‘Master Plan Police,’” Klein said. “We endeavor to meet the requirements. It’s a coming together of policy makers, educators and students to say, ‘This is the envy of the nation, it’s worked incredibly well.’ But now, the question is how to change with the fiscal reality, not dump it. Why would you dump it?”

Past attempts to alter the master plan have at times stalled due to lack of oversight, seeing little follow through. A joint committee issued a series of suggestions to strengthen the plan in 2010, but there is no standing committee to follow up the assessment. In 2002, a separate committee generated a report meant to replace the original master plan and encompass the entire public system, but its recommendations went largely unaddressed, according to the state legislative analyst’s office.

The California Postsecondary Education Commission, a state agency tasked with monitoring the master plan, closed in 2011 due to lack of state funding. This has since left monitoring of the plan almost entirely to the institutions themselves.

The three systems have now come together internally to coordinate efforts. Their leaders came together at the January UC Board of Regents meeting to announce a renewed focus on community college transfers, outreach to K-12 students and potential savings in procurement.

C. Judson King, director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education, said closer coordination among the three systems is necessary. He also said the master plan must adapt to a new funding model and find a way to expand enrollment at the university and the CSU system.

“The question is whether the other portions of the master plan still work if you have a different funding model — then, of course, you want to look at the overall cost of the student,” King said. “There is this big and broad issue which is way beyond the master plan, which is how higher education is going to be funded.”

This push for a new funding model comes at a time of moderate economic recovery for California higher education. Limited state resources are a major reason some are advocating a new master plan altogether.

The Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency, issued a report last October calling for a new master plan to address “the state’s need to substantially increase the number of graduates and the reality that state resources are limited.”

Legislators are also taking it upon themselves to alter certain tenets of the master plan. In 2006, the state legislature granted the CSU system permission to award a doctorate of education — a field the university would typically be responsible for under the plan. The legislature will soon consider a bill that would allow certain community colleges to offer four-year degrees, which the current master plan also does not allow. State Senator Marty Block, D-San Diego, who co-authored the bill, said legislation can offer opportunities to adapt the plan with changing needs of the state.

“Some criticize (the bill) because it violates the master plan … but we think this is a very positive place to take it,” Block said. “The master plan in the foreseeable future is going to stay the guiding document. It will stay alive, we just need to stay flexible.”

These recent actions have sparked a wider discussion among students, faculty and others about educational priorities. The Associated Students Senate of UC Santa Barbara began the movement for a new master plan in November, when it passed a bill pushing for the creation of a survey committee to investigate California’s higher education system. In February, the ASUC Senate passed a similar bill, and the University of California Student Association passed a resolution calling for the renewal of the master plan.

“It’s about recentering the state’s focus and recommitting the state to higher education,” said Kareem Aref, UCSA’s president.

ASUC Senator Caitlin Quinn said she hopes a re-evaluation of the master plan will bring the three systems closer together and put lowering tuition back on the table.

“The master plan was created in a totally different time,” Quinn said. “We need to think more proactively.”

Libby Rainey is the lead higher education reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @rainey_l.