Build It and They Will Stay

Colleges are expanding campuses and academic offerings to meet the need for a diverse workforce.

Janice Kleinshmidt Vision


Mathematics makes it easy to put a dollar figure to the benefit of exporting Coachella Valley produce. The detriment of consigning to other regions the promise and talent of youth, on the other hand, defies standard measurement. Nevertheless, educators, city leaders, and business managers grasp the lost value of high school graduates leaving for colleges and careers beyond the desert.

“Coachella Valley Economic Partnership is helping to create the jobs of the future, and you can’t sustain the jobs of the future unless you have the skilled workforce that can do those jobs,” says CVEP’s CEO, Joe Wallace. “We would like to keep our best and brightest people who have aspirations in technology.”

Such is the conundrum of a region whose economy mostly turns on the lure of its natural beauty while others focus on industry.

When a community college sprang from 160 acres of soil formerly growing date palms and table grapes in Palm Desert, 500-plus students enrolled. Now celebrating 60 years, College of the Desert offers certificate and associate degree programs to more than 15,000 students annually.

With a commitment to improve accessibility to higher education for residents throughout the Coachella Valley, COD has pursued physical presences east and west of its midvalley center, beginning in 2009 with a Mecca/Thermal campus.

“In 2014, we opened an Indio campus, which filled almost immediately with about 4,000 students,” reports Joel Kinnamon, the college’s superintendent and president. “Following that overwhelming success and knowing the demand in the East Valley, we are planning an adjacent expansion to double its size.”

In the valley’s west end, COD in 2016 began offering classes at Edward L. Wenzlaff Education Center in Desert Hot Springs and in January of this year opened a “temporary” Palm Springs campus, leasing space from Palm Springs Unified School District. In April, the college announced its purchase of the Palm Springs Mall for a permanent campus focusing on digital media and film, hospitality and culinary arts, healthcare, and sustainable technologies.

“All four of those educational pillars are among current programs, but we know how integral they are to the Coachella Valley economy and that they warrant a greater emphasis than we’re able to offer today,” Kinnamon says. The first phase of the campus is expected to open in 2021, with full build-out to accommodate 3,000 students in 2023.

“The college has worked with CVEP and local employers to align the curriculum, training, and skill sets to current and future job opportunities,” Kinnamon adds. “Healthcare, energy, and hospitality leaders in the valley also will be important partners in developing modern programs and facilities in Palm Springs to serve our students and the community.”

“Their expansion plans are very exciting to us, because about 70 percent of our students transfer from COD,” says Sharon Brown-Welty, recently retired dean of California State University, San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus. “Our faculties work together in designing programs so that courses at COD transfer as credit to CSUSB.”

During her 2014–2018 tenure, Brown-Welty saw enrollment increase 60 percent, from 800 to 1,400.

“We have a plan for adding 39 majors over 20 years,” she says. “These programs have been customized to meet local needs. We really want to help the region move from a nine-month to a 12-month economy. You have to have an educated workforce to do that.”

Offering 40 degree programs to San Bernardino’s 80, the college envisions adding classes in hospitality management, allied health, cyber security, computer engineering, biology, ecology, geology, nonprofit leadership, and more.

“If we add programs, we need to add buildings,” Brown-Welty says. New facilities in the next four to five years will begin with a library/student union, followed by an academic building for hospitality and business courses, and then a residential hall with 600 beds.

Enveloping 170 acres of land donated by the city of Palm Desert, the 2016 Palm Desert Campus Master Plan foresees a “vibrant 24/7 live-learn-work-play environment” to serve 8,000 full-time-equivalent students. The plan further “challenges the university to cultivate a system for entrepreneurship and innovation, to incubate business and social enterprises, and to create potential sources of revenue and talent.”

University of California, Riverside’s Palm Desert campus offers only a master of fine arts degree in creative writing and writing for the performing arts. But the research-based institution is extending its support for tech-company growth in the Coachella Valley in part by a three-week course called Startups for Innovators and in part through a venture fund.

In terms of its academic curriculum, “We definitely are focused on keeping the workforce here,” says Tamara Hedges, executive director of the UCR Palm Desert campus, referring to “traditional college-path” and certificate programs. “We are growing our offerings,” she says, noting in particular last fall’s addition of an advanced course in nonprofit management.

“Project management is doing well out there, so maybe like-minded courses would work,” adds Kasey Wilson, director of business, technology, and health programs at UCR in Riverside. “We have had a Geographic Information Systems program for 10 years. That’s something I really think could make a difference [in the Coachella Valley]. We want to make sure we are bringing not just our good ideas but also what the stakeholders familiar with workforce needs want.

“Tamara and I have talked about leveraging resources where we do a hybrid: an instructor teaching face to face for the first course and then a couple of online courses and then another one on the ground,” Wilson continues. “Another strategy, which has been tried, is livestreaming from Riverside with somebody [in Palm Desert] to answer questions and facilitate so that we can bring more courses there.”

“We have had a regional, collaborative plan since 2012 to expand opportunities for local students to be prepared for college and careers,” says Sheila Thornton, president and CEO of OneFuture Coachella Valley. “Healthcare accounts for 13 percent of the workforce, and we are undersupplied in bachelor’s degrees. By 2030, we will be undersupplied across California. If you are in a region where you are not competitive with [metropolitan areas], you are down the queue, because students will practice where they get their degrees. What a smart region does is plan for a workforce from its own educational institutions.”


The Palm Springs campus of College of the Desert is partnering with DIGICOM to create a Center for Digital Media Education.

DIGICOM has been teaching digital storytelling to K–12 students throughout the Coachella Valley for a decade.

Sheila Thornton, president and CEO of OneFuture Coachella Valley, says DIGICOM aligns with the public schools’ career pathways program. “There are 47 career academies at the high school level in the Coachella Valley,” she says. “They’re learning college prep work, including digital design and digital storytelling. If you don’t have a college program at the receiving end for them, all that investment can go flat.”

DIGICOM CEO David Vogel says they “will offer a two-year course from which students can matriculate with an associate degree and find jobs.”