Obama proposes incentive for better employer-community college relations

Kirkwood already has a high level of involvement from employers

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By Alex Boisjolie, The Gazette

CEDAR RAPIDS — In an attempt to make the bonds between business and community college even closer, President Barack Obama is set to propose Tuesday a plan to reward companies for donating equipment, helping establish curriculum and ultimately hiring graduates of the programs.

While the White House acknowledged that many of the president’s education proposals — like free community college education for qualifying students — have landed with a thud in Congress, it says this idea might get some legislative traction.

Details of the $2.5 billion tax credit program will be unveiled when Obama releases his final year 2017 federal budget proposal. But the plan appears to build on what has become an increasingly close relationship between community colleges and industries in training students to be better positioned for in-demand careers.

Some of what Obama envisions is already happening at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids.

“Right now, we have five sector boards with over 50 employers that are committing their time to come to meetings and be engaged in the process” of developing curriculum, said Kim Becicka, Kirkwood’s vice president for continuing education and training services, adding that many businesses already donate equipment to the college and offer internships to the students.

Obama’s Community College Partnership Tax Credit would be spread over five years focused on in-demand sectors such as energy, health care and information technology.

The U.S. Department of Education said the program is an attempt to strengthen community colleges’ educational offerings while helping businesses find high-skilled workers in certain fields.

It would work like this, the department said:

• Employers would help community colleges with designing curriculum, donating instructors and equipment and creating job-based learning opportunities.

• Once a student completes such a program, an employer would be eligible for a tax credit for hiring the graduate. Employers would get a one-time, $5,000 tax credit for hiring a qualifying community college student graduate full-time.

• States would designate partnerships between community colleges and employers through a competitive process, one that encourages moving workers into higher skill, higher wage jobs.

• Credits worth $500 million would be available for each of five years, from 2017 through 2021.

Becicka said if the tax credit plan were to pass, more employers in the area possibly could be attracted by the incentive.

But beside landing a job, a student could benefit in other ways.

“With more access from employers, the students will be up-to-date to what employers are looking for, since their needs are continually evolving,” Becicka said. “It would allow for more diverse opportunities for them.”

The Education Department noted that students with associate degrees earn roughly $10,000 more a year than those with a high school diploma only.

“The idea of ... bringing together community colleges and the local employer base is a very powerful one and really doesn’t break along party lines,” said Ted Mitchell, undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Education.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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