Higher education

Steep climb to reach Branstad's higher education goals

Changing demographics, cost and college readiness among barriers

One program to help create a “college-going culture” is the Gear Up effort, which works with students as young as the seventh-grade. Here, as part of a Gear Up campaign, Jaye Fenderson of California, director of the “First Generation” documentary, speaks in January 2015 to seventh-graders from Franklin, Roosevelt, Wilson and McKinley middle schools in Cedar Rapids after gathering to watch the stories of four students pursuing a college education. (Michael Noble Jr./The Gazette)
One program to help create a “college-going culture” is the Gear Up effort, which works with students as young as the seventh-grade. Here, as part of a Gear Up campaign, Jaye Fenderson of California, director of the “First Generation” documentary, speaks in January 2015 to seventh-graders from Franklin, Roosevelt, Wilson and McKinley middle schools in Cedar Rapids after gathering to watch the stories of four students pursuing a college education. (Michael Noble Jr./The Gazette)

Answering Gov. Terry Branstad’s call for 70 percent of Iowans in the workforce to complete some form of postsecondary training or education by 2025 will be tough, according to some higher education experts.

Yet research — specifically a recent Center on Education and the Workforce study out of Georgetown University — indicates it will be necessary. By 2025, researchers project 68 percent of jobs in Iowa will require education and training beyond high school — 3 percentage points above the national average of 65 percent.

“That’s why the governor set 70 percent as the goal,” said Elizabeth Keest Sedrel, communications coordinator for the Iowa College Student Aid Commission. “Even though it’s a high target, it’s really what we’re going to have to reach in order to meet the workforce demands that are coming.”

In 2014, the most recent data available, the state commission reported 60 percent of Iowans over 25 had completed some sort of postsecondary training or education — meaning the state has 10 points to climb to meet Branstad’s goal.

Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, soon to become Iowa’s first female governor, served recently as an example of the education gap and of the extra steps non-traditional students might need to take to close it.

At age 57, Reynolds this month completed her long road to obtaining a bachelor of liberal studies degree with concentrations in political science, business management and communications from Iowa State University. She had worked toward a degree at other institutions, and took advantage over the years of night and online options, before graduating from ISU.

A recently-released 2016 Condition of Higher Education report outlines some of the challenges standing between Iowa and its 70-percent goal — including that minority and low-income populations are the fastest growing.

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“The reason this is causing us concern is that we see a gap in educational attainment between the state average and those groups,” Sedrel said. “So we’ve got to start working on that gap.”

According to the 2016 report, 56 percent of black and 36 percent of Hispanic adult Iowans have some form of postsecondary training or education — compared with 61 percent for whites and 71 percent for Asians in Iowa.

Meanwhile, the percentage of Hispanic and black Iowans graduating high school is expected to increase 83 percent and 60 percent, respectively, between 2013 and 2023. The percentage of white and Asian Iowans graduating high school is expected to increase only 4 and 42 percent, respectively, in the period.

“If you already know that these populations are underserved, and you know that these populations are growing, we can’t meet our educational goals unless we find ways to increase the attainment across the board, certainly, but especially among certain minority groups and among low-income students,” Sedrel said.

Within the new report lies paths toward a solution, according to Sedrel.

“When Iowans who did not continue their education past high school are surveyed and asked, ‘Well, why didn’t you?’ more than half say, ‘Well, because it was too expensive,” Sedrel said.

But, she noted, statistics show only about two-thirds of graduating high school seniors in Iowa apply for federal student aid, including Pell Grants.

“Which means you’ve got a third of the students coming out of Iowa high schools who don’t even ask for aid — who don’t even find out what they’re eligible for,” Sedrel said. “So we know the cost of college is an intimidating factor that’s keeping people from going, but we also know that a third of the graduates aren’t even finding out what they could get.”

The research also shows shortcomings in Iowa’s college readiness. Only about a third of Iowa high school graduates met all four ACT college readiness benchmarks, according to ACT statistics. One fifth met none of the benchmarks.

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All those factors have advocates looking inward — at improving education around opportunities, options, and readiness — in their efforts to improve overall educational attainment.

“The term that we use a lot here is ‘college going culture,’” Sedrel said. “Just trying to create an awareness that, yes, this is an option.”

One program, called “Gear Up,” goes into districts to start working with kids as early as the seventh grade. And while the commission always advocates for more college aid support, Sedrel said funds are available now.

“Every year, the state of Iowa gives out almost $70 million in grants and scholarships to help Iowans go to college,” she said. “So, if somebody is willing to look into it — to file that FAFSA, to file the Iowa financial aid application — the odds are really good they’re going to get some help.”

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

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