California, for example, has two universities: University of California and California State University. Why would any state not simply have one university for all the higher-education programs it wishes to fund? It'd be easier for the students, as they now wouldn't have to go through a transfer application process just to go to a different state-run campus. They wouldn't even have to worry about whether the course work they did in - or to get into - their current university will be enough to get them onto that other campus.

The only reason I can come up with is feasibility.

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    You actually have to go through a transfer application process even to switch from one campus of the University of California to another. They're effectively independent universities with a common president. Sep 8, 2015 at 3:41
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    California actually considers it's community college system to be a state-run university system as well---the three systems form the backbone of the education system described in the so-called Master Plan
    – chipbuster
    Sep 8, 2015 at 3:42
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    Texas has the most state university systems of any US state, with 6. (So says Wikipedia)
    – ff524
    Sep 8, 2015 at 3:53
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    Most states have way more than two universities---see this list. It's just not reasonable to have a single organization trying to serve large, often highly geographically dispersed populations with heterogeneous needs.
    – jakebeal
    Sep 8, 2015 at 11:44
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    For the same reason that most European countries have more than one university? Also: California has dozens of private universities; you're only talking about public ones.
    – JeffE
    Sep 8, 2015 at 13:38

4 Answers 4


Your question seems to assume the default is for all campuses to be the same, but there's no reason for this to be true. For example, the UC schools are far more research-oriented than the Cal State schools. There's nothing wrong with that: California wants to have some public research universities, but that doesn't mean every public university should be a research university. That would be extremely expensive, and the net result would be either more research than the state wanted to fund or fewer universities.

There are many ways universities can vary (degree of research focus, graduate and professional programs, selectivity and prestige, etc.), and by default they will be different. This is typical in U.S. states, not just limited to California.

It'd be easier for the students, as they now wouldn't have to go through a transfer application process just to go to a different state-run campus.

That's not generally true, and indeed you can't easily transfer between UC campuses. From this perspective, California doesn't have two public universities, but rather dozens of them. It would require massive changes to make easy transfers work in practice, because some locations are far more popular than others and would be terribly overcrowded if everyone could transfer wherever they liked.

  • The assumption that that "the default is for all campuses to be the same" is made in most continental European higher education systems. The premise (not always realized in practice) is that every public university should offer similar resources, in terms of both education and research. This tends to make quality education more affordable and widely available than it is in the US. (It perhaps has disadvantages with respect to research.) There is something wrong with California's system - the cost is difficult for a lower or middle income family to assume without taking on debt.
    – Dan Fox
    Sep 9, 2015 at 6:07
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    @DanFox: I agree that things are often different in continental Europe. I'm not convinced that this has much to do with costs, though. California's system was super affordable in the mid 20th century, despite having the same overall organization as today, and the existence of the grandes écoles doesn't lead to French higher education becoming unaffordable for students. One difference is that European countries seem better at keeping costs in check, and an even bigger difference is their willingness to subsidize higher education. Neither is necessarily related to making all campuses the same. Sep 9, 2015 at 14:57

You seem to be mistaken in seeing only two universities in California. In fact, the two example you cite are University Systems, each with many universities under them. For example, the University of California system has UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, UC Los Angeles, and many more. The same is true for the other system.

In the end, one of the things to remember is that many of the US states are pretty big. California has a population of 38 million -- more than many countries in the world. It requires dozens of universities to educate its next generation, and for administrative purposes, these universities have been grouped into two systems (or, if you want to consider the community colleges as universities, into three). Other states have done the same.

These systems -- at least in most states in the United States -- do not usually provide any input into research or teaching. This is typically left to the individual university. Rather, the systems do things like property and land management, dealing with some financial matters such as issuing debt or bonds, providing political connections in the state legislatures, etc. In my current home state, the Texas A&M University System provides the administrative structure for the many universities under its umbrella, but the System itself is actually a rather small organization compared to the universities it oversees.


For starters, in some states, there is simply so much area or population, a single university simply can not support the population.

California has several universities because of population. California has over 38 million people. That's more than all of the Scandinavian countries combined. Can you imagine if a single university tried to be the sole university to support Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland? That university would be overcrowded and probably not be able to support everyone.

Florida and New York each have approximately 20 million people, collectively beating Poland.

On the size matter, the state of Texas is larger than Ukraine. Do you think that it's logistically feasible for a single university to be responsible for all of Ukraine?

http://www.ipl.org/div/stateknow/popchart.html https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sovereign_states_and_dependent_territories_by_population_density

  • Your figures look right to me, with one exception: the population of South Korea is more like 50 million. Oct 10, 2015 at 2:40
  • huh. Must have gotten bad numbers. Will edit... Oct 10, 2015 at 5:08

the CSU system - 23 universities - has its origins in agricultural and teachers' colleges, while UC had a traditional academic and medical bearing. recently, as you discerned, their roles have become more confused (CSU offers doctorate degrees and UC operates a ranch). any reading on this topic should start with the CA Master Plan.

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