Earlier this year, the Public Policy Institute of California issued a warning about a looming collision between California’s demographic and economic trends.

Baby boomers, a huge proportion of the state’s workforce, are retiring in droves. The oldest are at least 70, the youngest in their early 50s. By 2030, the vast majority will not be working.

Meanwhile, the state’s economy is continuing to evolve, creating an ever-increasing demand for well-educated workers, particularly in technical fields.

“In 2030, if current trends persist, 38 percent of jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree,” PPIC said. “But population and education trends suggest that only 33 percent of working-age adults in California will have bachelor’s degrees by 2030 – a shortfall of 1.1 million college graduates.”

However, while the need for action is obvious, the state is stuck with a half-century-old “master plan” for higher education that is woefully outdated.

It assumes that the three collegiate sectors – the University of California, the California State University System (CSUS) and the locally governed community college system – will collaborate seamlessly. But in fact, they compete fiercely for capital and operational funds and incessantly wage turf battles over course and degree offerings.

As a result, students face daunting hurdles to get the degrees they – and the state – need to prosper, not to mention ever-rising fees and other costs even when they nail down the courses leading to those degrees.

For decades, governors and legislators have refused to update the master plan, unwilling to take on the systems’ entrenched bureaucratic, political and union stakeholders. Instead, there have been piecemeal, one-bill-at-a-time reform efforts.

A promising approach – one widely adopted in other states – is to break down artificial barriers that separate the systems. But it’s been a tough slog in California.

The University of California resisted efforts by CSUS to gain authority to issue some doctorate degrees, for example, while CSUS objected to community colleges’ offering four-year baccalaureate degrees.

The latter is an especially critical element in higher education reform, because it would allow more students, especially those in rural areas, to gain professional degrees without the expense of going away to college – even if they can win fierce competitions for admission.

Three years ago, the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown finally approved a very limited experiment, allowing 15 community college districts to offer one four-year degree each in a field that UC and CSUS ignored.

Ten of those programs are up and running, mostly in technical fields, including dental hygiene, mortuary science, respiratory care and, at Feather River College in Quincy, “equine industry.” The remaining five districts will begin their baccalaureate programs this year.

Sen. Jerry Hill, a Democrat from San Mateo, introduced a bill this year to expand the experiment to 25 districts and give it longer to prove itself. And the Senate agreed.

However, Senate Bill 769 faced tough opposition from UC, CSUS, the California Faculty Association and the California Teachers Association, and last week Hill dropped the expansion, leaving only a five-year extension of the current 15-district authorization.

We’ll never know how many students will be denied educational opportunities by that retreat. But we do know that without decisive action, California’s higher education deficit will worsen. And we should know that the master plan’s antiquated and artificial lines of collegiate turf are hurting students and the state’s economic future.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...

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