California and Texas don’t see eye to eye on a lot of issues. Elected officials in the two states often express opposing views on economic development, taxes, climate change, social equity, gun control and more.
But there is at least one issue affecting the economic growth aspirations of both states where California would be wise to look to Texas and, frankly, to follow its lead: public higher education funding and its associated investment model.
Decades ago, Texas began implementing a new strategy. The state set out to greatly expand its financial stake in higher education institutions—including its emerging research universities—to elevate their position and impact while growing degree access among the most underserved in the state. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board authorized the addition of more postgraduate degree programs at its state institutions at a time when the Golden State was still lauding legislation that created the California Master Plan for Higher Education, which limited graduate-level degree expansion across its state universities. Texas also introduced specific state-supported funds, including the Texas Research Incentive Program and the National Research University Fund, specifically to incentivize private industry to invest in emerging research universities.
Whereas Texas recognized that changing conditions require a more nimble approach to higher education policy and used a series of legislative actions—and continues to do so—to usher in a different way of funding its public institutions and university research, the Golden State has stagnated in comparison. This is largely due to California’s dated Master Plan, signed into law in 1960.
Over several decades, the California Master Plan built a more segmented and stratified system of higher education. The highly ranked University of California system holds exclusive jurisdiction for awarding doctoral degrees—a cornerstone for not only stimulating innovative research, but also for preparing the workforce to meet increasingly sophisticated industry demands. Meanwhile, the much larger California State University system—of which my institution, San Diego State University, is part—offers very few Ph.D. degrees, all of which require, by state law, a UC or private partner.
So what does this mean, functionally? It means that for the last 60-plus years, with few exceptions, the only way the state’s largest and most diverse four-year university system can offer a doctoral degree is through a joint program, with students being required to enroll in both institutions at different stages of their work, and with the host CSU campus financially compensating their UC or private partner nearly every step of the way.
This barrier is often unknown or unattended to by most at the UC, where I was both a faculty and administrator for 16 years. It is not always a challenge finding UC faculty willing to pursue a partnership with a CSU to offer a joint doctoral program. But when we look at what it takes to harness that willingness from faculty to create a new joint program, too often it is quashed by administrative and financial barriers that would not exist under a stand-alone model. Or, as is increasingly the case, the program cannot advance because the faculty subject matter expertise at the CSU is simply unmatched by any UC or private university. A good example: California’s industries are demanding more manufacturing engineering Ph.Ds. San Diego State has highly ranked programs in this area and research-active faculty eager to open their doors to doctoral students. But without a willing and able partner, they can’t do so. And no UC has indicated interest in a Ph.D. for a degree so “workforce” focused. It’s not in their mission or in their faculty’s interest.
So why does this inequity in academic freedom prevail for CSU faculty, even when California would benefit from greater access to a more highly trained and competitive workforce?
California’s higher education code reinforces its Master Plan at every level, from requiring legislative action each and every time a CSU campus proposes to offer an independent doctoral degree to ensuring that CSU campuses receive no differential funding for their graduate students or faculty research. This creates a pervasive fear of innovation across the CSU. As a result, within the last six years, there have been only two independent professional doctoral degrees allowed for the entire CSU system: occupational therapy (2019) and audiology (2016). The veto threat of the UC system, and subsequent financial punishment of the CSU, looms large.
California has created a monopolized market where most doctoral degrees are limited to students who are mobile enough to relocate to the urban hubs where most UC or private elite campuses are situated. The state has long used the existence of the joint degree program as the scalable solution to this problem: diverse or place-bound CSU students can get access to Ph.Ds. and other high-skill training through a partnership of its public systems. Yet, it does everything it can to disincentivize this pathway. The state’s funding and investment model ensures that only the UC system is to receive funding for the increased cost of graduate programs. Only the UC is to receive funding above and beyond the cost of providing an undergraduate degree, in support of its faculty research. If a CSU campus wants to partner to offer its own students an advanced degree? It too must pay the UC or private partner, not the other way around. This is all true, despite the fact that many Cal State universities like San Diego State are unmatched in the diversity of the graduate students they serve. About 35 percent of our master’s and doctoral students are underrepresented minority students.
To date, the Master Plan has failed to create incentives for strategic investments in research and doctoral training programs in areas where there is the greatest need for growth, like the Imperial Valley and the Inland Empire. California’s focus on doctoral degree–granting institutions in more affluent regions has instead exacerbated educational access and economic inequities. When we look at the overwhelming concentration of research dollars in California, they are concentrated in only five institutions: the University of California, San Francisco ($1.7 billion); the University of California, San Diego ($1.4 billion); the University of California, Los Angeles ($1.4 billion); the University of California, Berkeley ($840 million); and the University of California, Davis ($817 million).
Two things can both be true here: 1) Investing in excellence is a smart choice for California. 2) Actively placing barriers to disincentive or outright prevent others from achieving and offering that same excellence hurts all of California, and especially those regions that are already at an economic disadvantage.
At one time, California’s Master Plan was lauded as a vision of the future for higher education. Many benefited directly from both the efficiency and access it provided in the 1960s, when it was serving a Californian population of 15.7 million, and with only 8 percent of the population identifying as nonwhite. Yet, today, California is home to nearly 40 million, with an increasingly diverse population. We are tasked with educating three million college and university students who are far more diverse and require a more student-centered educational system. Their success is paramount to maintaining the state’s economic competitiveness.
The UC and CSU systems must innovate. We must move on from the models of the past, which served a categorically different California. We must create a more accessible, competitive and responsive system of higher education.
Texas may provide us with good examples of funding models that create greater opportunity for equity and innovation across its systems, and it recognizes the impact of investing in the workforce across all regions of the state. With strategic foresight, Texas developed research incentive programs, industry-aligned funding programs and other initiatives specifically to support low-income students and students of color, no matter which state system they were enrolled in. They also correctly opted to diversify the research and economic opportunities for institutions throughout the state. Today, several state and public land-grant institutions in Texas offer at least one doctoral program, and many have seen incredible growth in their research portfolios and ability to secure external and federal funding in support of this work. Many also have medical schools and schools of allied health sciences. Such investments and incentives, which continue, offer some of the most promising pathways to social capital building and economic mobility in the same ways cities across California demand today.
In such a highly competitive and rapidly changing world, we owe it to the next generation to do everything possible to introduce new models that allow us to meet the needs of this moment—and our future.