Easing overcrowding and curbing the costs of attending California’s three systems of public higher education were among the issues on the table as state legislators Thursday opened a lengthy process to update the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education.
A special Assembly Select Committee held the first of what are expected to be five hearings around the state over the next year on ways to improve California’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education. Officials said it then could take at least six years in all to develop and approve concrete reforms and possible changes in admissions eligibility.
The influential master plan and later policy changes say that UC should accommodate the top 12.5 academic percent of high school graduates and CSU the top 33.3 percent, with community colleges having more of an open door policy.
“The promise of the master plan was access to an affordable, high quality education for all California students who qualified,” the select committee’s chairman Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto) said in an interview before the hearing. “I have complete confidence in the high quality but I think we’ve lost a little bit of the accessibility and a lot of the affordability.”
Leaders of UC, CSU, community colleges and private campuses testified Thursday, often saying that more state funding will be needed to maintain the plan’s promises.
Mindful that several past reform efforts did not lead to significant changes in the master plan, Berman said he was starting this process without preconceived ideas. Still, he said he thought some updating was needed to a “visionary” plan that was written before many of California’s public campuses were built and when Silicon Valley was mainly known for its fruit orchards.
Any changes in the plan, he said, should take into account dramatic shifts in California’s economy and in the ethnic composition of student bodies, which now includes so many more Latino and Asian Americans.
The Master Plan for Higher Education, adopted to get ready for Baby Boomers’ enrollment, is often credited by education analysts for helping to boost the prestige of California’s public colleges and universities compared to those in many other states. The plan differentiated the three systems by what degrees they could award and what students they could enroll, avoiding much of the confusion and squabbling among institutions elsewhere, they say.
UC was crowned as the research-oriented university, allowed to offer undergraduate, masters’ and doctoral degrees, along with professional education in law, medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine. While CSU subsequently has been allowed to offer some doctorates in education and nursing, its main mission was to provide undergraduate and graduate education through the master’s degrees, with special responsibility for teacher training. Community colleges were to focus on academic and vocational education through the first two years of undergraduate programs and also offer remedial, adult non-credit and workforce courses. (Some special bachelor’s programs have begun at community colleges recently.)
Among those testifying Thursday were UC system President Janet Napolitano; California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley; Kristen Soares, president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities; and Cal State Fresno President Joseph I. Castro, substituting for CSU system Chancellor Timothy P. White, who was reported to have suffered a slight unspecified injury over the weekend that prevented him from traveling.
The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office presented a detailed paper about the plan’s history, the expansion of higher education and the many questions an update would face. That report, however, did not endorse any particular actions affecting the 10 UC, 23 CSU and 114 community college campuses. In the past, legislators and others have put forward detailed suggestions, including a 2010 review by the Public Policy Institute of California that called for increasing the percentage of students who could be admitted to UC and CSU.
Witnesses on Thursday all praised the master plan for creating social mobility in California and said increased state funding is needed to continue that, along with possible master plan changes.
Napolitano said that the focus of student financial aid should be expanded from tuition to cover the full cost of attendance, including room, board and books. And since no new campuses are in the planning or construction pipeline, she said the state should boost spending “to increase capacity and address deteriorating infrastructure at our existing campuses. Today’s students deserve the same quality education as past generations of Californians. As we continue to expand enrollment, we must provide them with the classrooms, the laboratories, the libraries and the living spaces they need to thrive and succeed.”
Oakley urged a careful look at the master plan. It “reflected our best thinking in 1960. It no longer reflects the reality of 2017,” he said, stressing that factory jobs have receded and many other jobs now require at least some college education. Among other things, he said more resources should be devoted to working-age adults who return to school and that the state should work on ways to better track students’ education and career paths from kindergarten through college and beyond.
Castro emphasized the “rising demand for higher education” and noted that recent statistics show that 41 percent of California high school graduates now are eligible academically for CSU admission. While showing that more students are succeeding in high school, that rising eligibility increases enrollment pressures on universities, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley and Inland Empire regions that do not have as many campuses as coastal zones, he said. Castro suggested that the master plan’s eligibility guidelines for CSU be raised above the current 33.3 percent of high school graduates so more students can be enrolled. Without that expansion, he said he fears that CSU “could become more selective, changing the profile of the students we serve.” And he too urged legislators to provide “robust funding for enrollment, facilities and student services.”