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What's The Difference Between UC And CSU Schools? It Starts With A 'Master Plan'
A "tidal wave" of students led to a panic, and then to the three-tiered system we still have today, for better and for worse.
A photo illustration includes black-and-white images of former Gov. Pat Brown (seen with President John F. Kennedy) at the top and former UC President Clark Kerr below them. The shape of the state of California is also included. A dotted outline connects all three elements in the illustration, all against a red background.
Former Gov. Pat Brown (seen with President John F. Kennedy) and former UC President Clark Kerr were instrumental in developing the system of higher education in California.
(Collage by Alborz Kamalizad
LAist, photography courtesy of JFK Library and UC Berkeley)
(Collage by Alborz Kamalizad
LAist, photography courtesy of JFK Library and UC Berkeley)
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After World War II ended, the U.S. had a baby boom . Between 1946 and 1964, about four million new babies were added to the population each year. And as those babies got close to turning 18, California officials anticipated a massive increase in college enrollment.

Administrators saw these incoming students as a “tidal wave” and, in a state of apprehension, lawmakers began introducing bills to create new universities and colleges in their respective districts, without much of a cohesive planning process.

But University of California president Clark Kerr wanted a more concerted effort, and engineered one alongside Gov. Edmund Gerald “Pat” Brown. They won legislative approval to begin planning. The then-president of Occidental College, Arthur G. Coons, was selected to chair an eight-person committee (all men) to lead an initiative with "sixty-three recommendations made to the Committee ... approved by the team without a single dissenting vote," the committee wrote in its final document.

The chief result was a three-part system: The University of California, California State University and community colleges.

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In 1959, the UC Board of Regents and the State Board of Education (which governed CSU and the community colleges) approved the Master Plan for Higher Education in California , to educate the unprecedented number of students, from 1960-1975.

How Did They Sort Students?

The Master Plan called for unity among the three public postsecondary systems, along with significant changes to admissions requirements. At the time, UC was selecting its student body from the top 15% of high school graduates and CSU was selecting from the top 50%. The plan stipulated that UC would select from the top 12.5% and CSU from the top third. The more limited admissions pools were designed to redirect 50,000 students to community college, thereby reducing the cost of building new university campuses since fewer would be needed.

Under the plan, California’s community colleges were to admit “any student capable of benefiting from instruction.” Meanwhile, UC and CSUs were to establish a 40:60 ratio of admission between its lower (freshman and sophomore) and upper division (junior and senior). The intent was to increase transfer opportunities for students who completed their community college coursework. According to officials, the goal was that UC and CSU would enroll at least one community college transfer student for every two freshmen they enrolled.

Here are the big things the Master Plan did:

  • Divided up responsibilities for higher education: The plan made UC the state's primary academic research institution, tasked with providing undergraduate, graduate and professional education. UC was also given nearly exclusive jurisdiction over doctoral degrees, along with instruction in law, medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine. CSU was to provide undergraduate and graduate education "through the master's degree." The community colleges were to provide academic and vocational instruction for students through the first two years of undergraduate education.
  • Promised affordability — with fees: The plan reaffirmed the state's prior commitment to the principle of tuition-free education for California residents. However, it also established that students (as well as faculty and staff) should pay fees for auxiliary costs such as dorms, parking and recreational facilities. 
  • Expanded scholarship programs: The number and amount of state scholarships was increased to help cover more students and more costs, like room and board.

As a whole, the framework was meant to guarantee a college education for all California residents.

In early 1960, Gov. Brown called a special legislative session to consider the Master Plan’s recommendations. Ultimately, the Legislature adopted a statute incorporating many of its provisions. On April 27, 1960, the governor signed Senate Bill 33 into law, calling it "the most significant step California has ever taken in the planning for the education of our youth." Soon after, the state opened UC Irvine, UC San Diego and UC Santa Cruz.

“It was a home run,” said William Tierney, professor emeritus and founding director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at USC. In his view, the plan “highlighted what California was to the nation and the world” for three factors: “One was that the Master Plan said, if, as a citizen, you want to go to college, you can. And the state will pay for it. And if you go to a community college, that is a portal to a four-year degree.” Above all, the plan framed college education as a public good.

“It was really dramatic, future-oriented, bold — the sort of thing that captured the public imagination,” he said. “It stood as a model for decades, not only in the United States, but throughout the world.”

A Governor’s Great Legacy

The 1960 Master Plan was “one of the things that Pat Brown always looked back on as one of his greatest accomplishments, because it really defined the future of public higher education in California for a long period of time,” added Miriam Pawel, author of The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed A State And Shaped The Nation.

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Reflecting on what the plan accomplished in 1999, Kerr told the Legislature:

[W]e faced this enormous tidal wave, 600,000 students added to higher education in California in a single decade. There were new campuses that had to be built, faculty members that had to be hired, and so forth, and it looked like an absolutely enormous, perhaps even impossible, challenge before us. We started out in our Master Plan asking the state to commit itself, despite the size of this enormous tidal wave, to create a place in higher education for every single young person who had a high school degree.

In 2017, the UC Office of the President also described the plan as a success , signaling that “a much higher proportion of California's population, from every ethnic group and by gender, is in college now than was the case in 1960.” To meet the increased demand for higher education, the UC and CSU systems have also grown since the plan was implemented: UC added four new campuses, CSU added eight, and there are now 116 community colleges throughout the state (up from 63).

“We proposed that there be a community college established within driving range of almost every person in the State of California," Kerr said in 1999. "And that meant increasing the number of community colleges from about fifty to over one hundred. It became by all odds the most accessible community college system in the nation.”

How Has The Master Plan Changed?

Since 1960, the Master Plan has been reviewed and modified numerous times. Subsequent policy cemented the provision that every California resident in the top one-eighth or top one-third of their high school graduating classes who applies will be offered a place somewhere in the UC or CSU system, respectively — though not necessarily at the campus or in the major of first choice.

That's something that lots of people are trying to grapple with, how to expand access, because it’s become so difficult to get into the university.
— Miriam Pawel, author

Competition for admission has also become extremely intense. A Campaign for College Opportunity report found that the average weighted GPA of students admitted to six of the nine UC campuses was above a 4.0. In 2001, this was true for just three. Plus, because of state general fund reductions, fees have increased and been used for instruction at UC and CSU, effectively ending the no-tuition policy.

And while the Master Plan established a firm delegation of responsibilities, Brown's son, Gov. Jerry Brown, signed a 2014 bill that allowed 15 community colleges to pilot bachelor's degree programs . The program meant to make those degrees more affordable than through enrollment within UC and CSU. In October 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom further expanded that law .

What About The Plan Does And Does Not Work Six Decades Later?

If Kerr were still alive, he’d likely admit that the original Master Plan was imperfect. When addressing the Legislature in the '90s, he lauded educators who were making an effort to frame education as “kindergarten through university.”

“[T]here has been an enormous gap between primary and secondary education and higher education,” he said. “We didn't know each other. We weren't concerned with each others' problems. We lived worlds apart.”

“I might say we concentrated only on higher education partly because we then thought that primary and secondary education were in very good condition in California,” he added. “That's no longer true today.”

For Tierney, the USC professor emeritus who is an expert on higher education policy, the problem with the 40:60 ratio is that it funneled white, “well-to-do” students to four-year institutions and working class students of colors to community colleges, where they’ve historically struggled to transfer out. He also lamented the loss of free tuition.

Pawel noted that the student protests and free speech movement at Berkeley in the '60s paved the way for Gov. Pat Brown’s defeat in 1966. While campaigning to replace him, Ronald Reagan would often repeat: “We have to clean up the mess at Berkeley.”

Reagan promised to remove Clark Kerr if elected, and he did.

At his departing press conference, Kerr said: “In the history of the university, we've never turned away a qualified student from the state of California. I hope we never do. It will be a sad day when that happens.”

Two decades later, most UC schools have been stretched to their enrollment limits , and many CSU schools as well.

“I thought that that was a really relevant point [for Kerr] to make in the sense that one of the things that is no longer true about the vision of the Master Plan is that we're far away from that,” Pawel said. “That's something that lots of people are trying to grapple with, how to expand access, because it’s become so difficult to get into the university.”

What questions do you have about higher education?

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