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Kirkwood, other Iowa community colleges, awarding hundreds of Last-Dollar scholarships

Aid goes to students pursuing high-demand careers

Caleb Etzel of Cedar Rapids assembles a prototype of a copper iPad holder during a nine-month plumbing pre-apprenticship program in 2015 at Kirkwood Community College. The program is one of about 30 programs at Kirkwood where students can now apply for Last-Dollar Scholarships to pay their tuition and fees. The state scholarships, new this year, are going to students training in high-demand occupations in the state. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Caleb Etzel of Cedar Rapids assembles a prototype of a copper iPad holder during a nine-month plumbing pre-apprenticship program in 2015 at Kirkwood Community College. The program is one of about 30 programs at Kirkwood where students can now apply for Last-Dollar Scholarships to pay their tuition and fees. The state scholarships, new this year, are going to students training in high-demand occupations in the state. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Kirkwood Community College on Friday announced it has notified nearly 500 students pursuing “high-demand careers” that Iowa’s new Last-Dollar Scholarship program will cover their tuition.

“Students have been thrilled, to say the least,” Kirkwood spokesman Justin Hoehn said in a statement. “I’ve heard stories from our staff of students nearly breaking down in tears at the news that they will owe zero dollars for tuition. Another student couldn’t wait to get started in class once she heard that she qualified.”

The Last-Dollar Scholarships, signed into law earlier this year by Gov. Kim Reynolds, are laser focused on Iowa’s highest-demand jobs.

Those high-demand programs vary by school, but Kirkwood has nearly 30, including practical nursing, automotive service technician, welding, carpentry, computer software developer, mechanics and dental hygiene programs.

The scholarships are part of the ongoing Future Ready Iowa initiative aimed at getting 70 percent of the state’s workforce some form of education or training beyond high school by 2025.

The scholarship offers to bridge the funding gap for prospective students pursuing certificates, diplomas or associate degrees in dozens of high-demand occupations — so long as those students first apply for all other available state and federal aid.

That’s why it’s called the Last-Dollar Scholarship, said Elizabeth Keest Sedrel, communications coordinator for Iowa College Aid.

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“What federal and state aid doesn’t cover, the Last-Dollar Scholarship will,” she said.

The aid is available both to new high school graduates looking to start college full-time and adult learners who might already be working but interested in going back to school part-time.

“We have two issues going on,” Sedrel said. “Employers are telling us they’re having trouble finding employees for certain skills. We also know college is really expensive.”

Need is there

The Last-Dollar Scholarship addresses both of those issues, which could persist as demographic shifts project growth in Iowa’s low-income and minority populations.

Iowa College Aid research has shown low-income students are less likely to pursue postsecondary education than their middle- and high-income counterparts.

And Brent Gage, associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of Iowa, this week warned of a drop in the number of students in 10 years that will be so profound some schools will close and others could shrink significantly.

Exacerbating that overall decline, he said, will be the growing need for financial aid among those students still in the collegiate-prospect pool.

“There is no projected growth in the amount of families who will be able to pay full tuition,” Gage said Thursday. “So we are going to continue with a shrinking population, but we’re also going to have a population that has demonstrated financial aid need.”

Iowa College Aid has found college enrollment among low-income students surges 15 percent when their families have an extra $10,000 available. But state funding for financial aid — particularly for those in pursuit of a certificate, license, or associate degree — had been weak and waning.

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While Iowa appropriated $822 million to higher education in the 2017-18 budget year, most went toward public university and community college general education budgets and just 8 percent went to state financial aid programs, according to Iowa College Aid.

And, after peaking at about $71 million in the 2014-15 budget year, Iowa appropriations to scholarships and grants had gradually declined to $63.6 million in 2017-18, the state agency reported.

Even then, the largest state-funded financial aid program was the Iowa Tuition Grant — for private, not-for-profit institutions.

At Kirkwood

At Kirkwood, those declines translated to an 18 percent drop in the number of scholarships it has awarded since the 2015 budget year and a 20 percent drop in their value — from 1,629 scholarships worth $1.8 million to 1,343 scholarships worth $1.4 million in 2018.

But the new Last-Dollar Scholarship program has made another $13 million available to any Iowa community college or accredited private college that offers “qualified programs of study.”

To be eligible, students must attend orientation, meet with an adviser, remain continuously enrolled and make satisfactory academic progress. While students can receive Last-Dollar Scholarships for up to five full-time semesters or eight part-time semesters, they have to reapply annually.

“If anyone’s been thinking about going to college, and want to study one of these in-demand careers, the time is now,” Kirkwood’s Hoehn said. “They could get a tuition-free college degree if they meet the requirements.”

Kirkwood expects to award more Last-Dollar Scholarships before the start of the new academic year — as the application deadline is Aug. 1.

At DMACC

So does Des Moines Area Community College, which has awarded 701 Last-Dollar Scholarships worth $1.5 million.

“I think the best part of the whole thing is when the state of Iowa identified the 50 high-demand occupations, that gave students and parents a clear idea of where their job opportunities are,” said DMACC President Rob Denson.

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Because the Last-Dollar funds emerged from the state’s most recent Legislative session, Denson said his institution didn’t have much time to promote it ahead of the coming fall’s application and enrollment season.

But he expects the new financial aid offering could affect enrollment in subsequent years — perhaps bringing back to class some workers who might not have otherwise considered attending college.

“Anyone in a job that is not fulfilling their aspirations or doesn’t give sufficient income to get by and do well, they need to look at this,” he said. “These jobs are critical for Iowa’s economy. And here the jobs are waiting. It’s never been better.”

• Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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