Raising the bar and setting expectations for California higher education

150 150 Stephen Reed

Concern increases daily among soon-to-be high school graduates, their parents, the more than 670,000 current University of California and California State University students, and millions of Californians, as they watch the state’s higher education costs skyrocket and access decrease.  And, there’s no end in sight.  The tough economic times gripping every other segment of public and private life in California have also squeezed the CSU and UC – and in each instance, university governing boards have debated the public policy implications, ultimately defending their choice to maintain educational quality through higher fees and limited enrollment.

This dramatic shift has evolved in stark opposition to California’s 50-year old Master Plan for Higher Education, which established the CSU and UC as the “crown jewels” of public universities in America. The current question is: Do we think enough of higher education in California to continue to support it, and can we agree on funding the UC and CSU sufficiently to put a stop to the seemingly endless fee and tuition increases?


During the 2010 session, a legislative committee held hearings, interviewed experts, and took testimony from students, parents, and education leaders about the future of California’s public higher education.  The Joint Committee of the Master Plan for Higher Education, chaired by Assemblyman Ira Ruskin and co-chaired by Senator Gloria Negrete McLeod, unanimously approved a broad, sweeping public policy framework for the future of UC, CSU, and community colleges.

The joint committee produced Assembly Concurrent Resolution (ACR) 184, which spells out the following needs:

  • Universal access, affordability, and financial aid

  • Maintain excellence and rigor within the academy

  • The role higher education needs to play in the economy, workforce development, and career technical education

  • Seamless transfer pathways between higher education and the K-12 system

  • Having higher education be more accountable, evidence-driven, and results-oriented

Assemblyman Ruskin and colleagues on the committee captured the spirit of the much heralded Master Plan of the ‘60s and weaved those important tenets into the new needs assessment. It is a great start, but just a first step toward a revised commitment to public higher education in California. To be successful, there needs to be an unstoppable coalition to voice concerns in support of reforming the governance tools we use to manage, grow, and support higher education.


Shortly following the passage of ACR 184, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released the findings of a statewide survey about the extent to which Californians support higher education.  The findings were similar to what Californians said during the Joint Committee testimony:

  • 74% say the state does not provide enough money for colleges and universities
  • 68% say spending for public higher education should be high or very high priority
  • 62% state they are more likely to favor raising their own taxes than raising student fees to maintain current funding and quality
  • A majority of Californians believe the CSU, UC, and Community Colleges are “doing a good job”

So, after one year of hearings, study, and analysis, the legislative joint committee was able to state, “nothing has been more responsible over the past several decades for the quality of life in California and for California’s economic prosperity than our system of higher education.”  However, the PPIC poll points out, “confidence in the state government’s ability to plan for the future of California higher education is not high:  57% of residents have very little or no confidence in the government’s ability to do so, while only 40% of residents have some confidence in state government’s ability to properly support, plan for, and guide the universities.”


The results of the PPIC poll, combined with the concrete needs assessment contained in ACR 184, represent a mirror-image of California Forward’s goals:

  1. The State and our public higher education institutions are in desperate need of reform.  “Business as usual” is failing the state and the generations to come.
  2. California Forward believes it is prudent, effective, and necessary to “invest in the future.” Just as we need investments in transportation, a green economy, and other infrastructure programs for our future, we need to invest in our students – those who will lead and support California in the coming decades.
  3. We should expect a higher education system that remains diverse, accessible, affordable, transparent, accountable, and results-driven.

In other words, what the public expects of government (service, efficiency, accountability), they also expect of our public universities.  The future of UC and CSU and the reforms necessary for them to prosper mirror the reforms and public policy challenges California Forward envisions for state, regional, and local governments, as we together try to save California.

Stephen Reed is a project planning consultant at California Forward.


Stephen Reed

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