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House Bill Would Modernize Universities in Poor Areas

A new bill co-authored by U.S. Rep. Jim Costa would provide up to $50 million in grants to regional universities to do things like expand local Internet service and create job training and apprenticeship programs.

Jim Acosta at Fresno State
The legislation, unveiled Aug. 23 by U.S. Rep. Jim Costa at the Fresno State Library, would make public four-year universities in areas experiencing high rates of poverty and economic distress eligible for federal grants to help fund more projects to boost the area's economy.
JOHN WALKER/Fresno Bee file/TNS
(TNS) — Fresno State opened in 1911 as what was then called Fresno State Normal School. Today it is officially called California State University, Fresno.

Regardless of the name, there is no question of the huge role the university has had over its 111-year-history in the educational advancement of the San Joaquin Valley.

Students with agriculture degrees go right to work at area farms and related businesses. It’s a similar story for first-year teachers coming out of the Kremen School of Education who become teachers in local districts, and for entrepreneurs from the Craig School of Business who start new ventures.

In fact, 80 percent of today’s proud Bulldog graduates remain in the Valley, says university President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval.

The university has a work force of 2,500 employees. Beyond direct employment, there is the broader impact of purchasing goods and services. In the 2018-19 school year, officials said Fresno State-related activity supported 11,142 jobs, $438.9 million in labor income and $1.3 billion in industry activity, and contributed $81.2 million in state and local tax revenue, according to the report, The Impact of the California State University.

Yet for all its critical importance to the local area, in the national education picture Fresno State is considered a regional university. When it comes to federal funding, it is below research universities and land-grant colleges.

Jim Costa hopes to change that a bit. The longtime Democratic congressman from Fresno, he is co-authoring a bill, HR 8688, that would provide grants of between $25 million and $50 million to regional universities like Fresno State.

The grants could be used to improve public health services, provide start-up funding for new businesses, expand local Internet service, repair key public and university buildings and create job training and apprenticeship programs to get people to work.

These ideas parallel those in a 2021 study by the Brookings Institution. Its key point was that a great way to support distressed communities emerging out of the COVID pandemic is to strengthen not the big-name research institutions, like UC Berkeley, but mid-level schools such as Fresno State.

Costa is smart to recognize that and seize the moment.


For years, Fresno has wrestled with high unemployment, low wages, poor public health and a host of other social ills that point to its “distressed” reality.

Enter Costa’s HR 8688. It would create a special designation to target new money to regional universities so they can spur economic opportunities in their communities.

In California, besides Fresno State, Costa’s bill would provide funding to Cal State Los Angeles, San Diego State and Cal Poly Pomona.

“As an alumnus and former Fresno State Bulldog, I am proud to introduce this groundbreaking legislation that could provide significant investments to bolster our regional economy and build new opportunities for Valley residents to thrive,” Costa said in his announcement about the bill.

Fresno State officials said they would use additional funding to invest in disciplines “with high market demands,” namely business and entrepreneurship, education, social work, nursing, engineering, agriculture and criminology.

Strengthening Fresno State’s programs and infrastructure will also help buffer the Valley from economic slowdowns. According to the Brookings report, regional universities “support regional economic resilience during downturns and other economic shocks.”

Brookings said that new research reveals that the presence of regional universities helped local communities better handle the decline of manufacturing (think Midwest factories) and drop in oil and coal production (think Kentucky mining).

Valley agriculture is an economic powerhouse, but it is facing major challenges with water availability from the drought and pumping restrictions due to state law. Valley farming will surely remain the leading industry it is today. But it is good to know that Fresno State will continue well into the future.

The Valley’s other congressional members — Republicans David Valadao of Hanford and Connie Conway of Tulare — should back Costa’s bill without delay or political reservation. House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, who will likely represent Clovis come next year, should also support it.

This is about as bipartisan as a bill can get. After all, what is good for Fresno State is good for the Valley.

©2022 The Fresno Bee. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.