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Beyond the Master Plan: The Case for Restructuring Baccalaureate Education in California

Authors: Saul Geiser, Richard C. Atkinson
Date Published: November 18, 2010

This study documents how the structure of California’s higher education system restricts B.A. attainment among all students and especially among students of color.

Executive Summary

Although a stunning success in many ways, California’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education has been a conspicuous failure in one respect: California ranks near the bottom of the states in the proportion of its college-age population that attains a baccalaureate degree.  California’s poor record of B.A. attainment is an unforeseen consequence of the Master Plan’s restrictions on access to 4-year baccalaureate institutions.  In a cost-cutting move, the framers of the Master Plan restricted eligibility for admission to the University of California and the state colleges (later the California State University) to the top eighth and top third, respectively, of the state’s high school graduates.  As a result, 2-year institutions have absorbed the vast majority of enrollment growth in California higher education.  In addition to their important role in vocational education, the California Community Colleges now enroll between 40% and 50% of all students seeking a baccalaureate, including those at both the 2-year and 4-year levels.  

Constrained by the Master Plan, however, 4-year enrollments have not kept pace: California ranks last among the states in the proportion of its college students who attend a 4-year institution.  The paper presents comparative data demonstrating the powerful relationship between 4-year enrollment and baccalaureate attainment across the 50 states.   California’s low rate of baccalaureate attainment is sometimes blamed on the failure of community colleges to produce more transfers, but the data point to a more fundamental problem: Lack of 4-year enrollment capacity. California’s 4-year sector is simply too small in relation to the size of its college-age population.

The Master Plan’s restrictions on access to 4-year baccalaureate institutions have adversely affected all students but have had an especially adverse effect on students of color.  Relative to their share of the state’s college-age population, Latino, African American, and American Indian students are more poorly represented in California’s 4-year universities than in any other state except Arizona.  Inevitably, the state’s low rate of minority enrollment in 4-year institutions translates into low rates of baccalaureate attainment:  California ranks 45th in the proportion of its underrepresented minority population that attains a B.A.

California urgently needs to expand 4-year enrollment capacity in order to boost access and degree attainment among the new, more diverse generation of students now reaching college age.  Yet building expensive new 4-year campuses is an unlikely option given the state’s current and foreseeable fiscal circumstances.  The alternative is to restructure California’s existing postsecondary system.  The paper reviews a variety of baccalaureate reform models that have been introduced in other states.   The most promising of these models involve collaborations between community colleges and state universities to create new kinds of intermediary, “hybrid” institutions.   Examples include university centers and 2-year university branch campuses.  Under the university center model, 4-year universities offer upper-division coursework at community college campuses, enabling “place bound” students to complete their baccalaureate degree program there.  Under the 2-year university branch model, some community colleges are converted, in effect, into lower-division satellites of state universities, thereby expanding capacity at the 4-year level and eliminating the need for the traditional transfer process.  What these and other hybrid models have in common is that they help bridge the divide between 2-year and 4-year institutions, enabling more students to enter baccalaureate programs directly from high school and progress seamlessly to their degrees. 

Restructuring California higher education in the manner proposed here would lift the Master Plan’s caps on eligibility for UC and CSU and increase the overall percentage of students entering baccalaureate programs directly from high school.  It is one of the few available options with the potential to expand both the number and proportion of underrepresented minority students admitted to 4-year universities, yet without displacement of other students and the political backlash that would inevitably result.  Not only would this change improve access for those who have been historically underrepresented in higher education, but also it could command the support of all Californians with a stake in expanding opportunities to attain a 4-year college degree.

Saul Geiser is a research associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) at UC, Berkeley and former director of admissions research for the UC system.  Richard C. Atkinson is president emeritus of the University of California.  The paper was funded in part by a grant from the UCLA Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Dereches Civiles and originally appeared as part of the Research and Occasional Paper Series at CSHE

In compliance with the UC Open Access Policy, this report has been made available on eScholarship:

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