University Campus expects to cuts commutes, adds degrees

Following a $95 million bond Visalia will be home to a new university center expected to break ground in two years

VISALIA – To achieve her dream of becoming a teacher, Visalia native Jessica Lopez assumed a lengthy commute to Fresno State was in her future. But attending the university’s satellite South Valley Campus in Visalia means her commute to class is 10 minutes, rather than an hour.

“I feel like this is one of the best decisions that I’ve made,” said Lopez. “The campus is so accessible.”

This November, Tulare County voters approved a $95 million ballot measure to build a new and much expanded university center in Visalia across the street from College of the Sequoias. It means that many more students like Lopez will be able to get their bachelor’s or even master’s degrees without leaving town.

Right now Fresno State operates in just four satellite classrooms owned by College of the Sequoias at its South Valley Campus in Visalia. The new University Center, expected to break ground in 2025 and open in 2027, will represent a major expansion of university-level offerings for Tulare and Kings counties even if it is not a full CSU campus. Brent Calvin, superintendent president of College of the Sequoias, describes it as a “mini CSU.”

Greg Collins, a recently retired Visalia City Council member, can remember discussions about courting a university as far back as the 1970s. The most high-profile bid was when Visalia lost out to Merced as the location of the newest University of California campus. Decades later, there was not even a CSU satellite on the horizon. That makes Tulare and Kings counties one of the largest-population areas in the state — with over 630,000 people — without a full-fledged university.

“It’s a big deal for Visalia,” Collins said of the new funding and plan. “It’s something we were working on for generations.”

The newest full-service CSU campus, Channel Islands, opened in 2002. The last time that CSU formally considered opening a 24th campus, Tulare County was not in the running. When the state Legislature began to look into the issue in 2019, booming population centers had an edge over remote rural areas where transfer rates are low. The 2020 study ultimately concluded that there wasn’t enough enrollment growth to warrant the cost of a new campus anywhere in the state. This, combined with the uncertainty in the early days of the pandemic, killed the bid for a new campus.

Compared with most other parts of the state, relatively few residents in the region College of the Sequoias serves have bachelor’s degrees. In California, 35.3% of adults over 25 hold a bachelor’s degree, per census data. In Tulare County and neighboring Kings County, that number is just 15%, among the lowest in the state.

Local leaders say its less educated population puts the region at a disadvantage. School districts have trouble finding teachers. Since there’s a shortage of local nurses, the local hospital pays a premium for traveling nurses. The region finds itself out of the running for new businesses that require educated workers. 

“We think education is a game-changer,” said Tim Hire, the superintendent of schools for the Tulare County Office of Education.  “A viable way for students to break the cycle of poverty is to get an education.”

Measure C, led by College of the Sequoias, passed with 55% of the vote. The bond measure will pay for the design and construction of the building.

“This was our opportunity to have a publicly funded four-year university,” said Calvin, a Visalia native who has led College of the Sequoias for five years.

The college plans to maintain the center, and it has donated the land the University Center will be built on. 

Details are still being hammered out in the wake of the measure’s passage, but Fresno State programs are expected to anchor the center. 

Other universities, including Arizona State, Vanguard and Grand Canyon, also have an interest in getting involved, Calvin said. Leaders at UC Merced and Cal State Bakersfield have also expressed support for the project.

The CSU does have official satellite campuses all across the state, including CSU San Bernardino in Palm Desert, Stanislaus State in Stockton, CSU East Bay in Concord and Cal State Bakersfield in Antelope Valley. The vision of the University Center in Visalia differs from these satellites in that there is the potential for multiple universities to set up shop. In that way, it is similar to the College of the Canyons’ University Center, which offers bachelor’s and master’s programs from five universities, including Cal State Dominguez Hills.

The new University Center has its eye on the approximately 5,100 students from Tulare, Kings and north Kern County who apply to Fresno State every year — as well as students who currently end their education after earning an associate degree. 

It won’t be just College of the Sequoias transfers who benefit from a new University Center. Calvin expects it to provide a convenient alternative for students transferring from Porterville College, West Hills College, Reedley College and Bakersfield College in northern Kern County.

David Perez is a 21-year-old criminology student who transferred to Fresno State’s South Valley Campus from Bakersfield College’s Delano campus. The Visalia location means that he has been able to attend his dream school while living at home and keeping his job as a mechanic. He knows a lot of his peers have not continued their education because of distance.

“A lot of people do not want to continue studying because they don’t want to move away from their house,” Perez said.

Previously, the College of the Sequoias kickstarted the effort to bring a four-year university by offering up one of its buildings, where Fresno State set up its South Valley Campus in 2016. Calvin said this has served as a sort of proving ground for the larger, voter-approved operation. Since opening, the South Valley Campus has enrolled over 3,700 students, said Luz Gonzalez, executive director of the Fresno State South Valley Campus. 

The campus currently offers degrees in the most popular programs among South Valley students: education, business administration, criminology/law enforcement, and nursing. Agriculture science will be offered in the fall. It also offers upper-division general education requirements for students in other disciplines. Tuition rates are the same as they are on the main Fresno campus.

Despite little marketing, the degree programs have been popular. Most recently, 260 students applied for 50 slots in an accelerated program that allows transfer students to complete their bachelor’s degree and teaching credential in two years. This program enabled Lopez to student teach in Visalia Unified, the district that she plans to work in.

Lopez’s experience exemplifies what local leaders hope to see on a grander scale. Too often students go away for school and then become teachers or nurses in the communities where they were trained — whether Fresno, Bakersfield, the Bay Area or Los Angeles.

“We’re very interested in making sure we don’t have a ‘brain drain’ where young adults take off, leaving after high school and never coming back,” said Collins.

A new university center isn’t a magic bullet, Calvin said, but it’s a step in the right direction for the economic future of the region and for students looking to get an education while avoiding debt.

Previous generations didn’t have that option. Those who do have a college education tell stories of big sacrifices that include long commutes and high gas bills. City Council member Brett Taylor went to College of the Sequoias and transferred to Fresno State about 20 years ago.

“I didn’t have a lot of money, and I was living with my mom,” he said. “It was more affordable to commute two or three days a week.”

Lopez said she’s thrilled more students will have opportunities like her.

“I think more people will be motivated to actually get their degree,” said Lopez. “They won’t have that extra barrier.”

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