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Cedar Rapids, Kirkwood Community College launch workforce scholarship program
Initiative is first college promise program in Iowa cities
CEDAR RAPIDS — As businesses for years have struggled to recruit skilled workers to fill open positions — a challenge COVID-19 has only exacerbated — the city of Cedar Rapids and Kirkwood Community College announced Monday they are launching a partnership to fill local workforce needs.
Cedar Rapids will allocate $500,000 of its $28 million share of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds toward the College Career Connection program, a new workforce scholarship initiative with Kirkwood that will be the first of its kind among Iowa cities. Students in the college’s Career & Technical Education programs will receive grants totaling up to $6,000 a year when funding becomes available this fall, helping to fill the gaps for students when state, federal and other financial aid doesn’t cover an individual’s need.
City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said this program is a great way for Cedar Rapids to help individuals accomplish their dreams within the community, while also helping the city advance its strategy of “aggressive” economic development and supporting local business needs pertaining to workforce.
“I’m so pleased that we can do our part to provide these kinds of opportunities to individuals who want that education and desire an education, but need that little boost,” he said in a news conference at Kirkwood’s College Auto Technology Building.
To be eligible, students must be Cedar Rapids residents and qualify financially as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Kirkwood President Lori Sundberg said the students who would most benefit are those who surpass income eligibility for a Pell Grant but still have “significant financial need.”
Students must not already have their educational costs covered by the state’s Last Dollar Scholarship, a form of aid under Future Ready Iowa that is intended to cover remaining gaps between federal and state grants, scholarships and tuition and fees.
“It will enable those students and families not to take loans out for their college education, which is so important today,” Sundberg said.
Local officials hope this program will persuade more students to enroll in one of Kirkwood’s programs, and then live and work in Cedar Rapids, as well as entice new residents to live here.
While there is not a stipulation requiring grant recipients to work in the area after graduation, Kirkwood’s graduates already tend to reside nearby. Of Kirkwood’s graduates, Sundberg said 90 percent stay in Iowa, and an estimated 83 percent remain within Kirkwood’s service area.
“This is a great day for families, this is a great day for businesses and it’s a great day for Cedar Rapids,” Sundberg said.
This initiative has been years in the making in Cedar Rapids, but was put on ice for some time because of the pandemic and the 2020 derecho. But ARPA funding helped the city and Kirkwood finally launch the program.
The program will help more individuals realize their career and income goals with access to education, Pomeranz said.
“We want to grow, we want to develop, we want to create great jobs for this community, but we need the workforce in order to accomplish that,” Pomeranz said. “This is an important step toward making sure Cedar Rapids has the critical workforce in order to fill the jobs of today and tomorrow.”
Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell told The Gazette city officials often hear from prospective businesses or those looking to expand that they can't because there are not enough skilled workers, and this will help meet their needs. She also said the program will help those who otherwise would not have had the chance to pursue education beyond high school.
“I really want high school students to stay here, and the presence of a program like this lets them know that money will not be a barrier,” O’Donnell.
The National Conference of State Legislatures in 2019 counted over 350 municipal “College Promise” programs across 44 states, including California, Michigan and North Carolina. State and local governments pursue these initiatives to signal education is attainable as people grapple with skyrocketing tuition costs and loan debt, and to indicate investment in workforce development.
“I believe that those in Washington, D.C. as well as the state of Iowa would … be proud to witness how we’re using these dollars to help the Kirkwood students and the Iowans of today,” Pomeranz said.
To stake a spot as the first such program in Iowa, Pomeranz asked Pat Baird, treasurer of the Zach Johnson Foundation, and Les Garner, Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation president and chief executive officer, to research other programs and help identify the proper model for Cedar Rapids.
The Zach Johnson Foundation offers the Kids on Course program to help put youth on the path to a postsecondary degree. With the city’s contribution, Baird said the reach will be broader for those looking to pursue additional education.
“This is one of those very few projects you get to work on where everybody wins,” Baird said.
The Cedar Rapids City Council will vote Tuesday to allocate a first round of funds to this partnership, which will cover one year. A future $500,000 city allocation will fund a second year.
To keep the endeavor alive, Pomeranz said identifying private partners would be key, and he is confident philanthropic contributors will step forward once the program shows success.
Sundberg also said conversations are ongoing with Linn County about funding a similar program.
Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker, while delivering the State of the County address in 2019, announced planning was underway with local government entities and community colleges to provide Linn County students with access to two-year degrees.
Walker said Monday details are forthcoming on an initiative for Linn County residents with no limitations on which educational program scholarship recipients enroll in. He said there is a focus on helping those with barriers to accessing education, especially marginalized populations, earn a two-year degree.
The county has not yet committed any funding to this effort, but Walker said the Board of Supervisors in the coming months will likely allocate around $1 million of its $44 million share of ARPA funds to the program. He noted the amount is subject to a vote by the three supervisors, so it is not final, but he would like to see it built into the budget in future years.
“Together, I think they will complement each other nicely, and together, we’re going to get a lot of people through school, and that’s a good thing,” Walker said.
The Cedar Rapids council’s Tuesday vote also encompasses allocations for additional workforce programs.
A $35,000 allocation for the pilot program Skill-Up CR will offset a portion of wages for employees receiving training at Kirkwood, according to council documents. This will cover approximately 45 students and compliment existing tuition programs for workers.
For $50,000, Cedar Rapids will complete a target industry/workforce study reflecting the shifting global and local economic conditions, existing and emerging green industries and the workforce. This will update the city’s 2014 Target Industry Report & Business Cases Analysis from Angelou Economics.
Cedar Rapids has committed ARPA funding to other projects, including west side flood control, the PATCH program for housing repairs and restoration of some lost hotel/motel tax funds that are distributed to nonprofits.
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