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Editorial: Passage of SB 850 proves state Master Plan in grave need of update

By Editorial Board

June 2, 2014 12:33 a.m.

Whether they knew it or not, California legislators signaled last week the woeful inadequacy of the state’s guiding document for public higher education.

The California Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 850, a proposal to allow certain California community colleges to grant bachelor’s degrees. The bill completely ignores California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, which states that the community colleges “shall offer instruction through but not beyond the … 14th grade level.”

The bill itself is a smart one: It mandates that community colleges analyze the needs of surrounding communities in crafting their programs and creates a pilot rather than launching a new infrastructure.

But it’s the most recent instance in a trend of legislators, educators and public officials shoving aside the Master Plan to address practical concerns.

State leaders can choose to revoke or revise the Master Plan, but ignoring it is just plain negligent.

As it is, the outdated document has pernicious effects on California’s ability to educate its workforce. For one, it allows only the top one-third of the state’s high school students to enroll in public bachelor’s degree programs. While that benchmark may have been progressive in 1960 when the document was adopted, it’s overly restrictive now.

Aside from that, the Master Plan is farcically antiquated: It stipulates that a University of California education should be free, when students know it’s anything but.

Under its current education regime, the state faces a predicted shortage of one million bachelor’s degree holders by 2025. SB 850 is an attempt to fill that gap – but it’s a limited effort, unlikely to move the needle soon enough on the state’s educational needs.

Legislators can make real progress toward meeting California’s workforce demands by abandoning needless restrictions in the Master Plan and crafting education policy that addresses the realities of the state’s economy. In its own incremental way, SB 850 does that.

Yet if the bill causes legislators to become complacent about updating California’s public higher education system for the 21st century and revisiting its near-fossilized guidelines, it will be a net loss for the state.

To be clear, the conversation about Master Plan reform is separate from the conversation about funding the state’s existing higher education systems. Regardless of what the Master Plan could, should or might one day say, no institution of higher education can fulfill its mandate without proper funding.

Both conversations are crucially important for legislators to have.

There is little doubt that Californians will hear more about reforming the Master Plan in the coming months and years. When they do, it’s crucial to set aside old prejudices and restrictions in favor of producing the diplomas California needs.

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