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Yesterday’s post about the California State University Academic Senate’s resolution asking for unlimited, unilateral, unaccountable veto power over community college bachelor degree programs generated some provocative feedback. It seemed only fair to respond.

Several readers pointed me to the California Master Plan for higher education. As I understand it, in the 1960s the state appointed a group led by Clark Kerr (of “multiversity” fame) to come up with a plan for the state’s colleges and universities. The plan set up a tripartite system: the University of California—Berkeley, UCLA, etc.—would be elite research institutions for whom undergraduates would be relative afterthoughts. (One reader described them as “fodder for graduate assistants to practice teaching,” which isn’t exactly ripped from the viewbook.) The Cal State campuses would focus on the bachelor’s and some locally relevant master’s programs. The community colleges would be mostly vocational.

If you assume that the Master Plan is still in full effect, then you could read the CSU Senate as telling the community colleges to stay in their lane.

A more critical reader connected dots as follows:

“So … four-years shouldn’t get any say in four-year degrees offered by ‘two-years,’ but two-years should be able to require four-years to accept all transfer credits? Hmm. Methinks your only consistent through-line is ‘what’s good for two-year institutions.’”

No, but I can see where he got that. I had assumed, but not spelled out, that public higher education systems should function as systems. That was at the heart of my contention that public institutions shouldn’t be compelled to compete with each other. They serve the same public. That should be the guiding principle, regardless of whether that entails a system chancellor or the “coordinated autonomy” favored in my state. When systems work as systems, students benefit.

In other words, I’ve never suggested that two-year colleges should be able to compel four-year colleges to accept their credits. I’ve suggested that states should. Likewise, my objection to the CSU proposal is as much about the attempted arrogation of authority as it is about the merits of what they want to do. Mandatory transfer is a great idea, but the mandate has to come from the state (or, less commonly, the accreditors). One college or sector can’t dictate to another. The Academic Senate needs to stay in its lane.

That may sound like a picky distinction, but it matters.

The job of the state is not to micromanage what gets taught. It’s to set ground rules and to provide resources so the public institutions can fulfill their missions. Those ground rules may have to evolve over time, as the public’s needs change. For example, the California Master Plan (as far as I know) doesn’t mention dual or concurrent enrollment. Nondegree stackable credentials aren’t really addressed, either. The plan assumed that institutions would emerge as the population grew, but that mostly didn’t happen; a capacity issue developed that needed to be addressed. Clark Kerr shouldn’t be blamed for not foreseeing online education, but he didn’t, and it makes geographically defined service areas a bit more porous. Those issues need to be discussed, and ultimately, the high-level decisions need to be made by duly elected representatives of the entire state, not just faculty senates. And those representatives need to be democratically accountable for their decisions.

That puts responsibility on the state for recognizing the entire ecosystem of education from preschool through university. What are the ground rules for dual enrollment? For transfer? What do we want to emphasize? Are we encouraging collaboration, or are we pitting colleges against each other? Whether the state accomplishes that through relatively direct control (as with a chancellor or the equivalent) or through policy is much less important. The key is being able to pull back from looking at each institution in isolation and instead focusing on how students move through them. Students who experience credit loss upon transfer are less likely to complete higher degrees; the research on that is clear. If we pretend that every institution sprang from the ground spontaneously, like Hobbes’s mushrooms, then we might shrug and tell the students that credit loss is their problem and there’s nothing to be done. If we see the ecosystem as a whole, then we’ll realize quickly that connections need to be either nurtured or built, depending on context.

The California Master Plan was, for its time, an effort to do exactly that. It met its moment. Now the world of higher education is much more complicated; more nuanced plans are needed. That starts by recognizing that institutions exist in a system and what matters most is the experience of students who move through them. Local gatekeeping is not the way.

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