California Higher Educational System

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CALIFORNIA HIGHER EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM is the largest in the nation, with over 2.1 million students and 140 campuses. It has a tripartite structure, composed of the state's three postsecondary institutions: the University of California, California State University, and the California Community College system. Its fundamental goals are to provide affordable access to higher education for all California residents and maintain world-class research capability. Although it has weathered many storms over the years, including friction among the three institutions, explosive population growth, economic swings, and varying levels of support from governors and state legislatures, its mission and structure have remained essentially unchanged. It remains one of the most studied and admired higher education systems in the world.

The origins of the California higher educational system lie in the Progressive Era, roughly 1900–1920. California educational reformers and the state legislature envisioned a tiered, geographically dispersed postsecondary system within financial and physical reach of every Californian. By 1920, the tripartite system was in place, composed of the public institutions of higher education then in existence: the University of California, the state teachers colleges, and the state junior colleges, the first of their kind in the nation. The three institutions coordinated their programs and admissions policies to avoid duplication: the university offered bachelor's, doctoral, and professional degrees to the top 15 percent of high school graduates; the teachers colleges offered two-year teacher training programs with admissions standards varying by campus; and the junior colleges offered two-year liberal arts and vocational programs to all California high school graduates as well as the option to transfer to the university as third-year undergraduates.

The division of academic programs never sat well among the three institutions, and the ever increasing demand for college degrees encouraged the teachers colleges and the junior colleges to agitate for expanded degree programs and additional campuses. The university opposed these moves, arguing that they would lower academic standards, and in turn made attempts to absorb some teachers college campuses. As state legislators championed the campuses in their home districts or sought to have new campuses built, pork barrel politics and internecine squabbling seemed to be taking over the higher education planning process.

The California higher education system has under-gone periodic review, with each review commission building upon previous recommendations, always keeping in mind the goals of universal, affordable education and rational growth. All three higher education institutions saw their number of campuses increase and their programs expand. The state colleges in particular grew to include a bachelor's degree in several liberal arts disciplines and a master's degree in education. Ultimately, the state colleges were officially renamed California State University in 1982.

In 1960 the higher educational system underwent its most sweeping review to date, and the resulting report, known as the "California Master Plan for Higher Education," remains the blueprint for both operation and growth. The Master Plan is not a single document, but a collection of some sixty agreements between all parties in the system. Most importantly, many of the key recommendations of the plan were written into law in the Donohoe Act of 1960.

The overall purpose of the Master Plan is to coordinate expansion and prevent duplication and competition among the three higher education institutions, while maintaining universal, inexpensive access to postsecondary education for all Californians. It confirmed California's traditional policy of free tuition for state residents, with low fees for noninstructional services only. The Master Plan also codified the mission of each of the three institutions. The University of California would offer bachelor's, master's, doctoral, and professional degrees, engage in theoretical and applied research and public service, and admit the top 12.5 percent of California high school graduates. The California State campuses would offer bachelor's and master's degrees, admit the top 33 percent of California students, and engage in applied research in its program areas and public service. The community colleges (formerly known as junior colleges) would offer an associate degree as preparation for a higher degree, as well as vocational and adult programs, and would be open to all California high school graduates.

The policies delineated in the Master Plan faced their biggest test in the austere economic environment of the 1990s. Budget shortfalls made painful inroads into both universal access and reasonable cost. The state has set enrollment caps at the community colleges, and the University of California campuses have reached capacity or are overenrolled. Although tuition remains free, fees for noneducational services have soared, challenging the notion of "reasonable cost." Hard choices are being debated, such as tightening residency requirements, giving enrollment priority to younger students, and penalizing under-graduates who take longer than four years to complete a bachelor's degree.

In 1999 California determined that a new Master Plan was needed that would address tightened economic conditions as well as the needs of an ethnically and linguistically diverse student body. In May 2002 the draft for a twenty-first-century Master Plan was released that built upon the existing plan, expanding it to include kindergarten through postsecondary education. Implementation of the new plan is expected in 2003.


Douglass, John Aubrey. The California Idea and American Education: 1850 to the 1960 Master Plan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Joint Committee to Develop a Master Plan for Education—Kindergarten Through University. Framework to Develop a Master Plan for Education. Available at

University of California History Digital Archives. The History of the California Master Plan for Higher Education. Available at

Nadine CohenBaker

See alsoEducation, Higher: Colleges and Universities .

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