The California Master Plan for Higher Education of 1960 was developed by a survey team appointed by the UC Regents and the State Board of Education during the administration of Governor Pat Brown. Clark Kerr, then the President of UC, was a key figure in its development. The Plan set up a coherent system for postsecondary education which defined specific roles for the already-existing University of California (UC), the California State College (CSC) system of senior colleges, now California State University (CSU), and the California Community Colleges system (CCC).
The Master Plan also proposed a statutory framework for its implementation, which was signed into law by Governor Brown on April 27, 1960. The statute actually implementing the Master Plan is formally titled the Donahoe Higher Education Act  (now located at Part 40 of Division 3 of Title 3 of the California Education Code), to honor the memory of Assemblywoman Dorothy Donahoe of Bakersfield. Donahoe had authored the legislative resolution which eventually resulted in the study that created the Master Plan, and was one of its foremost advocates. However, she died on April 4, 1960, and did not live to see the Plan's recommendations signed into law.
Prior to the Master Plan's development in the 1960s, California struggled to reform its social institutions. Under political stranglehold, due to the 1920s-era railroad monopoly, new, self-proclaimed reformers attempted to overthrow the economic and political corruption existing in the state at the time. They wanted to create new institutions with a public morality to give California a new form of purpose.  However, in the early years of California's emergence the population remained largely mobile, moving from opportunity to opportunity, making it almost impossible for the state to create permanent public schools. Furthermore, California progressives encountered obstacles in the form of people who thought that education should remain the work of local and religious groups, as well as being opposed to paying taxes for social purposes. Another wall towards progress that they needed to circumvent was the issue of appropriating land and money for universities. The 1st and 2nd Organic Acts (of 1866 and 1868, respectively) helped by first introducing the possibility of a state secular institution and second, actually allowing for the creation of a state university controlled by a Board of Regents (which would become the University of California). 
In the 1950s, the state's legislators and academic administrators foresaw an approaching surge in University enrollment, due to the baby boom children coming of age. They needed a plan to be able to maintain educational quality in the face of growing demand.  The underlying principles that they sought were:
- That some form of higher education ought to be available to all regardless of their economic means, and that academic progress should be limited only by individual proficiency; and
- differentiation of function so that each of the three systems would strive for excellence in different areas, so as to not waste public resources on duplicate efforts. 
The original Master Plan was approved by the Regents and the State Board of Education and submitted to the Legislature in February 1960. In April of that year, the California Legislature passed the Donahoe Act placing into statute a number of components of the Master Plan.  However, California's Master Plan is more than a single statute. The 1960 Master Plan is embodied in several documents:
- A study completed by the Master Plan Survey Team approved by the State Board of Education and the University of California Board of Regents
- The Donahoe Act giving legal force to several key components of the plan
- A constitutional amendment which established the California State Colleges Board of Trustees (renamed the California State University in 1974). 
Clark Kerr stated that the goal of the master plan was to balance the "competing demands of fostering excellence and guaranteeing educational access for all."  The Master Plan achieved the following:
- It created a system that combined exceptional quality with broad access for students.
- It transformed a collection of uncoordinated and competing colleges and universities into a coherent system.
- It established a broad framework for higher education that encourages each of the three public higher education segments to concentrate on creating its own kind of excellence within its own particular set of responsibilities.
- And it acknowledged the vital role of the independent colleges and universities, envisioning higher education in California as a single continuum of educational opportunity, from small private colleges to large public universities. 
According to the Plan, the top one-eighth (12.5%) of graduating high school seniors would be guaranteed a place at a campus of the University of California ( Berkeley, Los Angeles, etc.) tuition-free. The top one-third (33.3%) would be able to enter the California State University system ( San Francisco State, California State University, Los Angeles, etc.). Community colleges (Bakersfield College, College of the Canyons, Citrus College, Mount San Antonio College, etc.) would accept any students "capable of benefiting from instruction."  These percentages are now enforced by sliding scales equating grade point average and scores on the SAT or ACT, which are recalculated every year. No actual ranking of students in high schools is used as many schools do not rank students.
Graduates of the community colleges would then be guaranteed transfer to the Cal State or UC systems in order to complete bachelor's degrees. This practice was carried over from previous years before the Plan was enacted, with graduates from the CCC being accepted as third-year students at the Universities by virtue of their prior coursework. Finally, the Plan established that the University of California would be the sole portion of the system charged with performing academic research, and would award master's and doctoral degrees in support of that mission. The Cal State system, in addition to awarding master's degrees, would be able to award joint doctorates with the UC. 
The "California Idea"—California's tripartite system of public research universities, comprehensive 4-year undergraduate campuses, and open-access community colleges—has been highly influential, and many other states and even nations have imitated this structure.  However, California higher education has had a poor record of college completion and four-year baccalaureate degree attainment. Subgroups such as Latinos and African Americans (whose demographics are large and growing) show even worsening statistics of degree attainment. 
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The Master Plan meant that essentially, "anyone from anywhere in California could, if they worked hard enough, get a bachelor’s degree from one of the best universities in the country (and, therefore, in the world), almost free of charge." 
The Plan increased overall efficiency in the higher education system, as well as produced greater number of graduates at a lower per-student cost by removing redundancies. This was accomplished by clearly specifying the missions of each system segment, in addition to clarifying what "territory" belonged to each institution. It established a "rational" planning process for the growth of the university systems, setting aside a past practice in which the Legislature would introduce bills establishing new four-year universities in a member's home district, a kind of political pork.
The Plan was the basis for a substantial surge in development in California higher education. Today, many[ citation needed] credit the California universities for the place the state holds in the world economy, as well as bolstering its own economic makeup with great investment in high technology areas, such as Silicon Valley, biotechnology, and pharmaceuticals.
The Plan has contributed to the massive economic contributions that the UC, CSU, and CCC systems have had to the state and its growth. According to a study by the Regents of California, the UC system is directly responsible for adding about $32.8 billion to the gross state product, which is about 1.8 percent of the total GSP, a key indicator of economic performance 
In 1972, a review of the Plan found that the basic structure was good, but that it should be changed slightly to accommodate the ideas of the time. For example, the review board suggested that weekend and evening programs be expanded to serve “non-traditional” students, and incorporating technology such as T.V. 
In 1978, Proposition 13, the People's Initiative to Limit Property Taxation, was enacted, causing the free public education to be eliminated. (Since tuition was still banned under the act, the word was replaced with per-unit enrollment fees.) Though the costs were low, many taxpayers were very angered by it, though this might have been because of the direct effects of the People's Initiative to Limit Property Taxation.
The 1987 revision specifically recognized the contributions of the independent sector and made explicit provision to include the independent sector in the planning functions of the state's higher education system. It also established a policy to set the maximum award for Cal Grants in state law.
In 2005, the demand for high school and community college administrators brought about a widely debated exception to the existing differentiation of function between the CSU and UC systems. The awarding of doctoral degrees had originally been exclusive to the UC system, with the provision that the California State Universities could offer PhD degrees as "joint" degrees in combination with the University of California or an accredited private university. Under the provisions of SB 724, signed into law September 22, 2005, the campuses of the California State University were then able to directly offer a Doctor of Education degree (Ed.D) "focused on preparing administrative leaders". It was argued that this fulfilled the original purpose of many of the CSUs, which were set up as normal schools to train teachers.
When the Master Plan was first founded in 1960, post-secondary education enrollments were equally divided among 2-year and 4-year institutions. However, in 2010, due to a lack of funding, the framers of the Master Plan limited eligibility admission to UC and CSU. The cost-cutting move diverted a large number of students to 2-year institutions, which would still allow them to finish their lower division work and then transfer to a 4-year institution.
- California Postsecondary Education Commission
- California State University
- University of California
- California Community Colleges system
- List of colleges and universities in California
- Rarick, Ethan (2005) The Life and Times of Pat Brown — California Rising (Ch. 7) Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
- California Education Code Section 66000 states that "[t]his part shall be known and may be cited as the Donahoe Higher Education Act."
- John Douglass, "The California Idea and American Higher Education" (Stanford, VA: Stanford University Press, 2000), p. 81.
- John Douglass, "The California Idea and American Higher Education" (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).
- California State Department of Education (1960). A Master Plan for Higher Education in California: 1960-1975. Chapter IV - Students: The Problem of Numbers, p. 46. Retrieved: 2014-04-19.
- University of California (2009). California Master Plan for Higher Education - Major Features Archived 2013-12-28 at the Wayback Machine. Office of the President. Retrieved: 2014-04-19.
- UC Berkeley (2010). Major Features and a Brief Guide to the California Master Plan Archived 2013-09-22 at the Wayback Machine. Center for Studies in Higher Education. Retrieved: 2014-04-19.
- Warren, Jeffrey E. (July 14, 2011. "UC, where are your native sons and daughters?" Hearst Communications - SF Gate. Retrieved: 2014-04-19.
- Marginson, Simon (2016). The Dream Is Over: The Crisis of Clark Kerr’s California Idea of Higher Education. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 51–55. ISBN 978-0-520-29284-0. Retrieved 4 February 2019.
- Atkinson, Richard; Geiser, Saul. "Beyond the Master Plan: The Case for Restructuring Baccalaureate Education in California." Center for Studies in Higher Education, 2012, p. 2. http://cshe.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/shared/publications/docs/Geiser_S-Beyond_the_Master_Plan.pdf
- Aaron Bady and Mike Konczal, "From Master Plan to No Plan: The Slow Death of Public Higher Education," Dissent, Fall 2012, http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/from-master-plan-to-no-plan-the-slow-death-of-public-higher-education.
- "The University of California's Economic Contribution to the State of California."Regents.universityofcalifornia.edu. Economic and Planning Systems Inc., 12 Sept. 2011. Web. 1 Mar. 2014. < http://regents.universityofcalifornia.edu/regmeet/sept11/f7attach.pdf>.
- Boilard, Steve. "The Master Plan at 50: Assessing California’s Vision for Higher Education."Lao.ca.gov.Legislative Analyst's Office, 12 Nov. 2009. Web. 01 Mar. 2014. < http://www.lao.ca.gov/2009/edu/master_plan_intro/master_plan_intro_111209.aspx>.
- SB 724 as chaptered in 2005
- Atkinson, Richard; Geiser, Saul. "Beyond the Master Plan:The Case for Restructuring Baccalaureate Education in California." Center for Studies in Higher Education, 2010.
- Douglass, John Aubrey. The California Idea and American Higher Education. Stanford University press, 2000.
- González, Cristina. Clark Kerr's University of California: Leadership, Diversity, and Planning in Higher Education. Transaction Publishers, 2011.
- "The History of the California Master Plan for Higher Education," Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley with links to relevant documents and legislation
- University of California Master Plan website with copies of many relevant documents
- The Future of Flagship Universities, by Robert Berdahl, former Chancellor, UC Berkeley
- Clark Kerr's legacy: 1960 Master Plan transformed higher education, UC Berkeley public relations office
- The CSU Public Affairs Photo Collection on the Online Archive of California — encompasses photographic material from the late 19th century to the early 1990s and collection finding aid provides history of CSU within Master Plan.
- The History and Future of the California Master Plan for Higher Education
- The Dream is Over: The Crisis of Clark Kerr’s California Idea of Higher Education by Simon Marginson