San Diego City College / File photo by Megan Wood

If California’s Master Plan for Higher Education were a person, it would be eligible for retirement soon. The 1960 state plan established how each of the state’s public systems of higher education function – essentially giving each system territory over the types of degrees offered. 

But as those distinctions have become increasingly blurry – CSUs have begun to offer doctorates, and community colleges have moved into bachelor’s degrees – there’s a growing call to overhaul that master plan.  

Here’s the system the plan created: UCs were the state’s premier research institutions, could offer bachelor’s degrees and were given exclusivity over doctorate degrees. CSUs were meant to offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Community colleges were to focus on lower division education, two-year degrees and workforce training. Each school also had a specific pool of students they could accept. 

Constance Carroll, former chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, said the master plan addressed the “chaotic nature” of California’s higher education at the time it was written.  

But a lot has changed since 1960. 

“The California master plan does need to be updated … so we don’t have to have shoot-outs in the Wild West every time a good idea comes up,” she said at a July meeting of the California Community College Board of Governors. 

The current shootout between institutions is over community colleges offering certain bachelor’s degrees the CSU system thinks are duplicative of ones they already offer, something a new law that brought bachelor’s degrees to community colleges prohibits. A new master plan could tear down the divisions that delineate who can offer what to bring more bachelor’s degrees to community colleges.  

CSUs and UCs are simply out of reach for many of their students, community college officials say. California’s student population has also changed dramatically since the master plan’s creation. Advocates believe a new plan is needed to better serve those students. 

“This notion of territory and hierarchy is built into the California Master Plan for Higher Education,” said Aisha Lowe, California Community College’s vice chancellor for educational services and support.  

Carlos Cortez, the current chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, thinks the state needs an entirely new plan, one that is continually updated on a set timetable to keep up with inevitable changes in education and technology. 

“I think (the master plan) needs to be ripped up and rewritten because it’s no longer relevant,” Cortez said. “Cal states (are) offering doctoral degrees, we have community colleges offering baccalaureate degrees, and the mission … of our systems has changed over the years.” 

A nearly 80 page review of the master plan from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research produced in 2018 isn’t quite as explicit as some community college officials, but still hints that changes are needed. From the role of technology in education and the labor market, the rise of private universities, decreases in funding, the changing demographics of California and college students and the shifting purpose of college and education, “the structures of the Master Plan have been asked to bear responsibilities for which they were not designed,” the report reads.  

“A clear conception of the goals for higher education and life-long learning (in) the 21st century is needed to ensure that new policies and approaches will strengthen our institutions and benefit Californians for decades to come,” reads the final line of the report. 

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What We’re Writing 

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @jakobmcwhinney. Subscribe...

Philip Salata is a freelance reporter and a master's candidate at USC Annenberg. He writes about labor, education, and social justice issues, with a particular...

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