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The effort to develop a 4-year CSU campus in Coachella Valley builds local momentum

PALM DESERT, Calif. - "California State University Palm Desert" has a nice ring to it for locals who have thrown their support behind adopting a standalone 4-year university in the Coachella Valley. As of now, the campus in Palm Desert serves as a satellite location for CSU San Bernardino, more than 60 miles away.

"Like most kids, I feel a little bit nervous. This is my first year in college. I do feel a little nervous, but I’m excited knowing that I’m here at home," said Jason Davalos.

Davalos will be a first-time freshman come August. He'll be majoring in nursing, with a majority of his classes being offered in Palm Desert.

While Davalos isn't entirely sure whether some of his classes in the future will have to be taken at the main campus in San Bernardino, he was offered peace of mind after being informed of the assistance provided to students.

"If we do need to take them at the main campus there is a Sunline shuttle that takes us for free to the San Bernardino campus so that’s really helpful," Davalos said.

Davalos will share the experience of an exciting new chapter with hundreds of Coachella Valley students poised for college.

The Palm Desert campus is a commuter extension that provides local students the opportunity to have access to higher education closer to home. Many students opt to remain in the Coachella Valley to save money and stay closer to home, but the decision doesn't always work out that way.

Depending on the program, students may find themselves having to drive miles on end to the main campus because programs at the extension campus are limited.

"Everywhere that has a well-diversified, high-paying economy has a university," Coachella Valley Economic Partnership Chief Innovation Officer, Joe Wallace said. "We are the only place in the US with 500,000 or thereabouts permanent residents that doesn’t have a 4-year comprehensive university that offers STEM degrees."

Wallace and CVEP have been at the forefront of trying to make CSU Palm Desert a reality. The organization produced a recent study highlighting the overdue need for a standalone campus.

Only 16 percent of the Coachella Valley workforce holds a bachelor's degree, according to the report. A majority of those degrees came from adults on the western end.

While a satellite campus is a start, Wallace and other supporters believe it is not enough.

"Some of the classes have to be gotten in San Bernardino so they have to drive and a lot of the kids are from families from the east end. (They) are families that are struggling financially and I don’t mean not having enough to go out to a fancy restaurant, I’m talking about having food challenges and shelter challenges. The young people are expected to help and how can you go to college and take all of these hard courses and then work and pitch in 30-40 dollars a day to the family that needs it? It would make our potential for long-term prosperity so much better if we can offer these degrees here." Wallace said.

It's a fight that has been years in the making. The state contracted a team of independent consultants to analyze a total of five locations for a prospective 24th CSU campus. Among those locations included Chula Vista, Stockton, Concord, San Mateo County and Palm Desert.

MORE: CSU studying Palm Desert as a possible site for a 4-year campus

The report findings, released in July 2020, determined that the Palm Desert campus had the potential to serve first-generation and lower-income students. It has the highest share of historically underrepresented minorities living nearby.

But the conclusion fell short, also finding that the "projected enrollment demand alone does not justify the development of a new 7,500 FTES (Full-Time Equivalent Student) CSU campus at any of the five evaluated locations, assuming the approved Master Plans at all 23 campuses is funded."

In 2016 a master plan for the CSUSB Palm Desert campus was presented to add more infrastructure, including housing. The goal was to transform what is a commuter school into "a 24/7 university community" with an enrollment goal of 8,000 full-time students."

Despite what was found in the report, local supporters aren't backing down.

"There’s no 4-year university within 60 miles of our Palm Desert campus," Wallace said.

"It would raise the quality of living for so many people. If ever there was a magical thing that would make everybody’s life better, it’s education," Mayor Pro Tem of Palm Desert, Jan Harnik said.

Harnik and the city of Palm Desert have been equally involved in the effort.

"Years ago, our city council at that time, a couple decades ago, recognized that if we were ever going to be in a position to elevate life and create a vibrant economy in this economy, we needed education. So based off it at that time, and again this is two decades ago, to donate land and today the city of Palm Desert has donated 170 acres to the CSU system for that campus," Harnik said.

The city, CVEP and the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitor's Bureau, took one more step and formed Priority 1 Coachella Valley

"The purpose was to hire lobbyists who have influence with the governor-- ultimately the governor is the one who really makes these decisions," Wallace said.

Project supporters have been flooding the governor's office in an effort to make their voices heard.

"What we were doing was we blew up their fax machines; they were having to put new paper in every half an hour from people who were sending out faxes," said Wallace.

The 4-year university could pour millions of dollars into the economy, create thousands of jobs and of course boost education, according Priority 1 CV.

Now with donated land and a community backing, what is the next step to seeing this through?

"This year we put in a 100-million dollar request to the administration and the budget chairs. There’s a little over two billion dollars that looks like it’s going to happen for the CSU system for new infrastructure and we’re hoping to continue to keep fighting to make sure that we get some of that money to Palm Desert," District 42 Assemblyman Chad Mayes said.

Both Mayes and District 56 Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia have been working together to get a piece of the pie. The money has not specifically been allocated to any specific school and now representatives will likely be fighting for the same thing all across the state.

Among some of the requests is $500 thousand dollars to study the implementation of a hybrid campus in Palm Desert, and a million dollars toward expanding current infrastructure.

"It’s important for us that we fine tune some of the language that gets more specific and try to get our hands on some of that 100 million dollars that’s in the budget. That’s ultimately the end goal-- to bring home the money," Garcia said.

If you support the effort to bring a 4-year university to the Coachella Valley you can sign the petition here: https://priorityonecv.org/sign-our-petition/.

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Shelby Nelson

Shelby Nelson is a News Reporter for KESQ News Channel 3. She joined our team in September 2019. Learn more about Shelby here.

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