Report: Planning a Thriving Ecosystem of Higher Education in South County

In partnership with Southwestern Community College District and City of Chula Vista, PIC’s research team has completed a workforce and academic needs assessment report to determine what careers and pathways are most needed for South Bay to thrive in the future.

Executive Summary

The Need

Chula Vista is the largest city in California without a university offering bachelor’s degree programs. Local leaders have been trying to bring bachelor’s degree programs to the 585,000 people living in South County since at least 1986. In 2023, the City of Chula Vista broke ground on a project that will change that. This research project identifies local workforce needs and demand for bachelor’s degree programs. We draw on focus groups with business leaders across the region, a survey of employers in San Diego County, Orange County, and Baja California, Mexico, a representative-sample survey of 1,000 San Diego County residents, data from the US Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics, and data about programs from regional universities. Our analysis is designed to help the University Now Initiative (UNI) fill local gaps in higher education, differentiate themselves from other regional higher education offerings, and tailor their programs to residents’ needs.

Our Findings

South County residents want and need a bachelor’s program. 40% of South County adults were interested in enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program in the next two years, compared to just 27% in the rest of the county. Residents expressed the desire for programs in business, healthcare, technology, and the arts, and were as likely to be motivated by self-improvement as by income growth.

In focus groups, business leaders emphasized the skills they need from workers, including technical skills, but also social awareness, communication, independence, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving. In the short-term, employers were focused on growing their businesses and improving processes. For the long-term, they were concerned about the impacts of AI and other emerging technologies, like virtual reality and robotics. To prepare them for the future of work, students need the skills to use these emerging technologies and work effectively and ethically in a workplace alongside automated agents.  

To determine the most valuable academic programs to recruit to the region, we first identified 147 priority occupations that currently pay self-sufficient entry-level wages, don’t require graduate degrees or more than four years of work experience, and are projected to hire at least 50 new workers each year. We adjusted hiring expectations based on eight trends, including AI and automation, climate change, nearshoring, and changes in California’s regulatory environment. This process helped us focus on the jobs of the future.

Our Recommendations

We recommend that the UNI committee consider prioritizing programs that:  lead to high-quality, high-demand jobs that meet the economic needs of the future; meet needs that are unmet by existing public universities in the region, and build on Southwestern College’s strengths and existing programs where possible by building transfer pathways to the newly created university clear to students and easy to access.