Students walk in front of the Indian Wells Center on the CSU-San Bernardino Palm Desert campus. Credit: Kevin Fitzgerald

If you’ve been hoping that a four-year state university would soon be established in the Coachella Valley, we have bad news: No such project has been approved, nor is one being seriously considered at this time.

In 2020, a detailed study commissioned by the California State University Board of Trustees and the CSU Office of the Chancellor evaluated and compared five potential sites for a new CSU campus: Chula Vista, Concord, San Joaquin County, San Mateo County and Palm Desert. The study—officially “The California State University Enrollment Demand, Capacity Assessment, and Cost Analysis for Campus Sites”—was done with a 2019 appropriation of $4 million to study the potential need for an additional CSU campus in any of those five locations, as well as the anticipated benefits and impacts. Upon completion, the CSU Board of Trustees delivered it to the state Legislature—along with their recommendation that none of the five locations be approved as a site for a new campus, due to insufficient enrollment demand.

As a result, Coachella Valley high school students wanting to attend a full four-year college close to home are out of luck, as are the businesses, public-service leaders and politicians who have dreamed of a diversified and strengthened local economy resulting from a university.

But that doesn’t mean anyone is giving up on the dream.

“The making of a four-year university is certainly the goal,” said Palm Desert City Manager Todd Hileman during a recent interview. “We were hearing that COVID put things on pause: With so many students learning at home, (the CSU administration) didn’t know what that was going to do to ongoing behavior. Were students going to take more classes over the internet versus being on campus?”

The short-term local goal, Hileman said, has shifted to growing the Cal State University-San Bernardino and University of Riverside satellite campuses in Palm Desert.

“For the last year or two, the emphasis has really been on trying to get some additional state funding to expand the campus to better serve our students here,” Hileman said. “The hope is that one day, it would be a stand-alone campus, for sure. But that really has not been the focus. The focus is much more on continuing to enhance the student experience there.”

Hileman spoke enthusiastically about a recent earmark for a big improvement to the CSU-San Bernardino satellite campus in Palm Desert.

“There’s been a $79 million budgetary commitment (made by the California Legislature) to the campus right now, and we view the investment by the state as a real positive move,” Hileman said. “We’re working with the staff from CSUSB to build a student services center (in Palm Desert). That’s in the design phase right now. Also, we’re adding some additional classroom space. … Obviously, the hope is that with more students attracted to the campus, more of an argument can be made that (the campus) should stand alone. So this is kind of step one in a very long process.”

“There’s been a $79 million budgetary commitment (made by the California Legislature) to the campus right now, and we view the investment by the state as a real positive move.” Palm Desert City Manager Todd Hileman

When the report was initially requested by the Legislature, members of the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership (CVEP), in conjunction with the valley’s cities, proactively launched their own research and marketing effort to support the bid for a four-year university, “The Coachella Valley Is Ready to Rise: The Case for a California State University Palm Desert.” The introduction to the 16-page document, in part, states: “This case study demonstrates the desert community’s collective need, commitment and enthusiasm for establishing the 24th California State University in the Coachella Valley. It details how the necessity for affordable higher education is greater in the desert region than in any other location in the state of California, as well as how the community is aligned and prepared to swiftly shepherd the development of CSU Palm Desert.”

Michael Uhlenkamp, the senior director of strategic communications and public affairs for the CSU Office of the Chancellor, explained during a recent email exchange with the Independent why no new CSU campus will be built anytime soon.

“When the study was initiated and completed, there were much different situations related to both the enrollment of the CSU and the state’s economic picture,” he wrote. “The two biggest drivers of a potential new campus, lack of enrollment capacity and available state funding, are very different today. In 2020, the CSU was experiencing an all-time high enrollment of more than 485,000 students. Since then, and largely attributable to the pandemic-related drop in enrollment at the California community colleges and the subsequent decrease in transfer applications, CSU enrollment has dropped to 457,992. Additionally, the state, which would need to dedicate substantial resources to the establishment of a new campus, is projecting a budget deficit of more than $20 billion this year.”

The good news is the study revealed, in many ways, that Palm Desert is the most attractive option for a new CSU campus. Most notably, according to the CSU study, the total cost to develop a four-year campus in Palm Desert was roughly $4.56 billion, while the Chula Vista option came in next at $4.74 billion, and the Stockton option came in at $5.38 billion. Also, Palm Desert ranked high in seven of the study’s 14 specific areas of review, more than any of its competitors. The areas in which Palm Desert was deemed most desirable included the ability to serve first-generation students, the ability to serve lower-income populations, alignment with local industry, land availability and housing availability.

Hileman said the work to eventually bring a full four-year university to the Coachella Valley continues.

“The Palm Desert City Council actually put $150,000 in seed money into the city budget three years ago to advocate for additional funding to come to this campus,” he said. “Most, if not all, of the campus buildings have been built through private donations. So this ($79 million commitment) is the first time that we’ve seen the state of California come in with a sizeable investment.

“We view the campus being awarded $79 million, with the help of … former representative Chad Mayes and current District 36 Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia … for campus improvements as a very positive sign that (the state) is willing to keep investing in this area. And we’ve put together a coalition that obviously sees the need for it, and we’ve got programs that we’d like to see expanded. The student center is the first step in continuing to enhance the student experience on campus, and continuing to make the argument for a stand-alone campus with more classrooms and programs.”

We wanted to discuss the matter with District 47 Assemblymember Greg Wallis, who took over for Mayes and sits on both the Assembly’s Committee on Higher Education and the Select Committee on Master Plan for Higher Education in California, but he did not return multiple emails and phone calls from the Independent.

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, after he and his wife Linda moved from Los Angeles to Palm...