Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Report · October 2019

Higher Education in California: California’s Higher Education System

Hans Johnson and Marisol Cuellar Mejia

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Sutton Family Fund.


California’s higher education system has three public segments: the University of California (UC), the California State University (CSU), and the California Community Colleges. It also includes more than 150 private nonprofit colleges and about 160 for-profit institutions. In total, the state’s colleges and universities enroll almost three million students from a wide range of backgrounds. An additional 170 private for-profit trade schools (postsecondary institutions that award vocational certificates but do not offer degrees) enroll about 30,000 students.

Eight out of every ten college students in California attend a public institution-and more than half are enrolled in the community college system. Even so, the share attending private schools is sizeable. Indeed, private nonprofit colleges enroll slightly more students than the University of California. Enrollment in private for-profit colleges has been declining after increasing sharply for many years.

Unlike most other states, California has not had a coordinating body for higher education over the past several decades. This has made goal setting, oversight, and coordination more challenging. The structure and principles established almost 60 years ago by the Master Plan for Higher Education remain largely unchanged. The Master Plan allowed the state’s public system to accommodate dramatic increases in enrollment for several decades while providing broad access and charging little or no tuition. But over the past two decades, tuition has risen sharply and enrollment has not kept up with demand. Current discussions and recent legislative efforts are moving the state toward reestablishing a higher education authority.

This publication is part of a briefing kit that highlights our state’s most pressing higher education challenges in eight key areas:



Access Affordability Completion Equity Finance Higher Education
Public Policy Institute of California