The Case for Higher Education Oversight and Coordination


The pursuit of higher education is central to California’s core values. Decades ago, the state made a promise that every high school graduate would have a spot in higher education. In the years since that pact was made, California’s higher education system has been stretched beyond its capacity: we’ve seen volatile economic changes, steep cost increases, burgeoning student enrollment, and significant enrollment impaction. While more underrepresented students attend college than in any generation previously, substantial inequities in education and workforce opportunities persist for today’s students. Now, more than at any other time since California’s Master Plan for Higher Education was chartered in 1960, the state needs expert leadership to undertake the critical task of shepherding its higher education system back towards its original mandate of providing equitable college access and success to all its citizens.

In 2011, due to a series of challenges, the California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC), the agency responsible for statewide higher education coordination, was cut from the state budget and effectively dissolved. Today, as broader questions loom about responding to the vulnerability of workforces, innovating on education practices, and meeting students’ basic needs, a statewide coordinating entity could serve as an independent mechanism to guide the state’s response to these challenges and more.

Our 2014 research on higher education governance showed that California is one of only two states without a central organizing body for higher education—Michigan is the other. While the functions of each state coordinating board assessed in our report varied in their level of oversight authority, the primary functions of planning and policy development, system coordination, and academic program review and approval were generally consistent.

The research is clear: an effective coordinating entity for California should

  • Develop a statewide public agenda for higher education that connects degree attainment to the needs of the state’s economy
  • Promote policies and high quality programs to help students reach academic success in a timely manner
  • Be autonomous from the governance of the institutional segments—the role of the coordinating entity should exist in partnership and collaboration with the segments
  • Maintain a comprehensive statewide data system that would support program planning, policy development and system monitoring

In the absence of the CPEC, the incremental efforts at coordinating specific programs and goals have resulted in marginal progress on statewide goals and strategic planning for higher education.

In the absence of the CPEC, the incremental efforts at coordinating specific programs and goals have resulted in marginal progress on statewide goals and strategic planning for higher education. However, some initiatives have led to increased intersegmental coordination:

  • Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT) Program ADT establishes degree pathways that enable community college students to transfer and earn a four-year degree with an additional 60 units—students receive both their two-year and four-year degrees for a total of 120 units.
  • State assessed enrollment targets Since the recession, policymakers have increasingly emphasized enrollment planning and policy development through fiscal measures.
  • 2:1 transfer rate policy at UC Based on a budget deal made in 2015, the UC established a goal of admitting only two in-state freshmen for every one in-state transfer student by fall 2017. Like the ADT program, UC developed its “Transfer Pathways Program” to guide students transferring into 21 of its most popular majors from a community college.
  • System-wide Guided Pathways In 2017, California Community Colleges received $150 million in one-time funds to implement Guided Pathways system-wide. The framework gives students highly structured plans for navigating higher education and completing degrees on time.

California became a powerhouse thanks in large part to the ingenuity of state leaders who recognized that investments made in an engaged, educated citizenry would return enormous benefits to the state. That investment should once again be renewed with a vigor befitting our young, bold century. If we are going to continue to prioritize high standards of student success, system accountability, and equitable outcomes, coordination must be at the forefront of that investment.

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