Opinion

COMMUNITY OPINION: Our ‘eduficit’ challenge

Nik writes that Hollister needs a multi-pronged, creative strategy to lure more higher education resources to the county.

This community opinion was contributed by resident Nik Dholakia. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent BenitoLink or other affiliated contributors. BenitoLink invites all community members to share their ideas and opinions. By registering as a BenitoLink user in the top right corner of our home page and agreeing to follow our Terms of Use, you can write counter opinions or share your insights on current issues.

 

Our penchant for acronyms and short forms can be frustrating sometimes.

The term Eduficit does not roll off the tongue well. The term is a bit clunky, but it is needed to label the issue being raised here. The acronym is short for higher education deficit of San Benito County.

In stark terms, a challenge for San Benito County – not a new one, but one that is becoming serious by the day – is that compared to proximate and adjacent counties, San Benito County has a massive deficit on many dimensions of higher education: institutions, students, analytical resources, creative energies, intellectual infrastructure and talent. The table below, based on Census data, lays out one glaring aspect of the county’s Eduficit – percentage of adults who hold college degrees.

California County Percent Adults with College Degrees
Marin 59.5
San Francisco 58.1
Santa Clara 52.4
San Mateo 51.0
Alameda 47.4
Contra Costa 42.4
Santa Cruz 40.8
Monterey 24.7
San Benito 20.1

 

In the olden, golden days – when the county was essentially agricultural and Hollister was an agribusiness and agri-service town – the Eduficit was of course there, but it was not that much of a problem.

In 2022, the situation is very different.

According to the U.S. Census data, San Benito was one of the three fastest growing counties in California during the 2010-2020 decade. In 2022, the county’s population is expected to touch about 67,000 – with annual growth rate topping 2%. By the end of 2022, it is estimated to be the fastest growing county in California.

The growth so far is primarily from new housing being built. Just imagine what would happen if one or more big corporations moved some operations to the county – as Intel did in 1983, to the then-sleepy town of Folsom, transforming it from a town of under 6,000 in Johnny Cash prison concert days to a city of 90,000 in 2022.

Hollister and San Benito County of 2022 face a phalanx of challenges, ranging from developing the transport infrastructure to preserving the ecology and rural character of the county. The talent base to tackle these challenges needs to have – to the extent our efforts and imagination allow it – some good local roots. Of course, outside talent and experts can be hired to tackle such challenges. But such external talent has limitations. The outside experts are fair-weather friends. They leave fancy reports and recommendations; and the arduous tasks of making these recommendations workable falls on local administrators, activists and actors. Our Eduficit is likely to result in reports sitting on shelves, or in implementation snags and bottlenecks.

Also, with the exploding housing growth and the concomitant boom in graduating high school seniors, the need to have accessible and affordable higher education options in the county has acquired an urgent character. Sure, there are plans afoot to bring a Gavilan community college campus to the county, but these are simply not enough. The rising population – of college-age 18-year-olds as well as of eager adult learners – demands a multipronged effort to boost higher education in San Benito County.

So, what can be done? A lot, or very little – it depends on the way the interests and imaginations of our residents, businesspeople, community organizations, thought leaders, civic volunteers, politicians and administrators line up.

I am, and this should be no surprise, in the camp that would like to do a lot to reduce our county’s Eduficit. 

Incidentally, the financial resources to reduce our Eduficit exist, both at the county/city government level and especially at the individual household level. We may have an Eduficit problem, but we are by no means a poor county. San Benito County ranks 11th in the state, in terms of per capita income, way ahead of other rural counties. In fact, only the rich Bay Area counties, Napa, and a few rich Southern California counties outrank San Benito County in terms of income.

So, I will end with a short list of possible actions to tackle our Eduficit problem:

  • Attract a major California university – preferably a University of California (UC) campus; if not, then a California State University (CSU) campus – to open a reasonable-sized facility, in terms of numbers of disciplines as well as number of students services, in Hollister.
  • Many East Coast, Midwest and Southwest private colleges are eager to tap into the hunger for higher education in high-growth parts of the world. Many have entered the Bay Area, with branch campuses. If they are convinced of the potential degree-seekers in high-growth San Benito County, they might be persuaded to open a campus here.
  • Many major state universities – in the Midwest and the Northeast – are in areas that are depopulating or have stagnant populations. Additionally, they face pressures of shrinking state support and of private university competition. They are therefore getting ambitious in branching out, to locations outside their home states. These universities – often the largest in the nation – sometimes have large faculty, staff, and other resources that are underutilized. Unlike private universities, major state schools either cannot or will not hire and fire at will. If one of these universities could be persuaded to create a branch in Hollister, that could bring an attractive option for combating our Eduficit. In terms of costs and student fees, an outside state university would of course be higher cost than California state options, but more affordable than private university options.

Of course, these options are not mutually exclusive. More than one can be pursued. Also, there could be other creative ways to combat and reduce our Eduficit, in the short term and in the long term.

With tremendous growth in remote learning methods since 2020, the physical footprint of a higher education entity in San Benito County can be kept small – a few classrooms and seminar rooms with good video and electronic links, some workstations for students and staff, perhaps a multi-purpose resources lab.

No matter which set of options are pursued, if we think strategically, the trump cards are in this county. There is no need to raise taxes or bond monies to attract higher-education players into San Benito County. The burgeoning legion of high school graduates and of adult learners should be a sufficient lure to attract funds, materials, and talent from the outside higher-ed entities that want to come here. Let us dangle the population growth bait to catch one or more higher-ed fish.

 

Nik Dholakia

Nik (“Nikhilesh”) Dholakia is Professor Emeritus from the University of Rhode Island. In 2020, he and his professor emerita wife Ruby made a full-time life-changing transition, moving 3000 miles to Hollister, California.