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California and the West

Backers Cite Need for State College in Ventura County

Education: As Cal State trustees prepare to consider plan to create campus, supporters note that the area has a relatively low rate of high school graduates who go on to a university.

September 16, 1997|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMARILLO — Despite its relative affluence and top-caliber schools, Ventura County lags far behind counties of comparable size and wealth when it comes to shepherding students to college.

It has the sixth-highest family income in the state, but ranks 15th in nudging high school graduates on to higher education. And it sinks to the bottom third of the state's 58 counties when comparing the number of students who find their way to four-year universities.

But perhaps the most compelling measure of educational need comes from those who have hit a dead end in pursuit of higher learning, people who are otherwise accomplished but who somehow feel incomplete without a university degree.

"That is still my dream," said Oxnard Harbor Commissioner Jess Herrera, who despite being a leader in his community still longs to upgrade his 20-year-old associate of arts degree from Moorpark College.

"For many of us, this is still our Achilles' heel," Herrera said. "This is not just some piece of paper to hang on the wall, it's an affirmation that you have accomplished something."

Backed by such strong sentiments, a busload of civic leaders will head to Long Beach on Wednesday to urge California State University leaders to end Ventura County's decades-long wait for a four-year public university.

For the first time since the planning process began late last year, the full Board of Trustees will review the blueprint for transforming the now-closed Camarillo State Hospital into the university system's 23rd campus.

Armed with charts and volumes of documents, Cal State planners will seek the board's blessing to push forward with a plan to take over the hospital property as the first crucial step toward launching a campus to be called Cal State Channel Islands.

"We are the largest county in the state without a four-year public university, and we have a large and growing population that does not have access to higher education," said Handel Evans, president of the budding Cal State campus.

"Yes, it's time and it's necessary," Evans said. "And it will be the best thing to happen to Ventura County in the past 50 years."

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The absence of a public university has been a stumbling block for generations of local residents, educators say.

Over the years, the vast majority of high school graduates have been funneled into the community college system. Although many of those students have emerged with a solid academic foundation, they have had few local options for furthering their education.

Ventura City Councilman Jim Monahan is typical. He graduated from Ventura College in the early 1960s with a degree in business and a desire to pursue a four-year degree.

But his college career was cut short when his father fell terminally ill and Monahan was needed at home to help run the family business.

With no public university nearby, Monahan said, he had little choice but to let his college dream slip away.

"A lot of my friends were in the same boat," the 62-year-old Ventura native said. "I guess I still could go back to school. But even now there's no university here."

Unlike in other counties, Ventura County students have limited choices after graduating from high school or community college, educators say, unless they are willing to leave home and can afford to do so.

Both Cal State Northridge and UC Santa Barbara have off-campus centers in Ventura, but course offerings remain slim. There are private colleges in the area, such as California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks and Thomas Aquinas near Santa Paula, but they cost upward of $15,000 a year.

Another option is to commute to a public university.

From the proposed Camarillo campus--in the heart of Ventura County--it's about 45 miles to Cal State Northridge and about 60 miles to UC Santa Barbara.

A proposal to build a Cal State campus in Ventura County has been on the drawing board for more than three decades, beginning when Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown authorized a study to locate potential sites.

In 1969, the state bought 425 acres in Somis for a campus but sold that land seven years later. For the next two decades, opposition from residents or other snags scuttled one proposal after another.

Now comes a plan to turn the former psychiatric hospital near Camarillo into a college campus.

Planners propose initially to take over the hospital property and turn it into the new home for the Ventura campus of Cal State Northridge by January 1999.

When enrollment reaches about 6,000 full- and part-time students, planners say, the campus would be expanded into an independent four-year public university.

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Last week, Ventura County's community college leaders threw their support behind the conversion.

"A rising tide lifts all boats," said Oxnard College President Steven Arvizu, who wrote the board's letter and who until a few months ago was vice president of academic affairs at the newest campus, Cal State Monterey Bay.

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