Replenish our workforce, grow our small towns, keep our kids here
At least eight states now offer free community college programs, including Arkansas and Tennessee. Iowa used to be the leader of the pack in education, and it’s time to take serious steps to get us back there. Education is our engine for the future.
It’s not just the corporate income tax rate that is keeping businesses from moving here – it’s the lack of a readily available skilled workforce. Qualified workers we have educated aren’t staying in this state to match with new companies – and they need a reliable supply. Unemployment is low. Baby boomers are starting to retire, exacerbating the gaps in the trades and skilled jobs. But instead of figuring out how to educate the workers we need to draw business here, the Iowa Legislature is arguing over two foolish tax bills that would blast big holes in the budget, in the belief that lower revenue will somehow trickle down and give businesses an incentive to invest in the state.
The Governor’s “Future Ready Iowa” initiative has bundled some useful tools and possible scholarship applications onto its website. It has laudable goals of increasing the number of Iowans with post-secondary education and certificates, and it includes a “last dollar” scholarship program to help students fill jobs in areas declared high demand. At face value it seems complex but limited in scope; a student must reapply annually and it provides no mechanism for someone, based on personal circumstances, to opt out and opt back in.
We need economic development suited to each town and city; we need post-secondary education that does not sink our young people in debt, and we need qualified, certified workers in trade and manufacturing. Put them all together and we have the answer: Change the “skilled workforce shortage tuition grant program” to the “community college tuition grant program”, focus on the areas of the economy most in need of skilled workers, and we have the recipe for a free community college program.
Elements should include:
- Graduate from an Iowa high school with at least a 2.0 and be a resident for at least one year.
- Enroll in any of the associate degree or certificate programs that one of our 15 community colleges have declared to be industries in need for their region of the state.
- Apply for other relevant programs and grants, all bundled onto one website for your convenience.
- Encourage businesses to contribute to the scholarship programs.
- As long as you remain a student in good standing, on track to finish that degree or certificate, the portion of tuition and fees not covered by grants or scholarships will be covered by this program, as long as you remain (at least) a half-time student.
- Should you need to withdraw from degree studies due to personal circumstances, this program would include a mechanism that would allow you to reapply within one year and finish, without having to pay back monies the state has fronted in between.
- Agree to work in-state in your degree field for at least as long as the length of the degree program – so if your program lasts two years, you agree to a two-year commitment; any portion of that two years that is not met will need to be repaid to the state (including any portion of the scholarship contributed by private businesses).
- Be part of a mentorship program so there is someone there to help along the way.
- During the degree program, be paired up with an area employer for on-the-job training – in essence, an apprenticeship program – that can translate into a job upon completion of the academic program.
Cost: The average cost of full-time tuition and fees for community college in 2017-18 is $5,265. The existing Iowa Skilled Workforce Shortage Tuition Grant (Kibbie) awarded 4,415 scholarships in 2017 with a maximum award of $2505 and an average award of $1128, which coverers 50% of tuition, fees and books. Assuming other grants and scholarships, and an average award of $4,000 annually (erring on the high side), $10 million would assist 2500 students in the program’s first year; $15 million would invest in 3750 students. Tennessee, for example, funds their program out of the state lottery. Given current and looming labor shortages, training and retaining our young people is a worthwhile investment in Iowa’s future. When they stay in-state with good jobs, their buying power will be greater because they will not be in debt, and they will become motors of the economy, advocates for continued excellence in public education as they have families, and draws for new business.