Government

Free community college tuition for some Linn County high schoolers part of county's vision

Program to help low-income students taking shape over next three to five years

Linn County Supervisor Chair Stacey Walker answers a question from the audience during an question and answer session at the State of the County Luncheon hosted by the League of Women Voters of Linn County at The Kirkwood Center in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Wednesday, May 8, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Linn County Supervisor Chair Stacey Walker answers a question from the audience during an question and answer session at the State of the County Luncheon hosted by the League of Women Voters of Linn County at The Kirkwood Center in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Wednesday, May 8, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Some Linn County high school students would receive two free years of community college education under a plan announced by Supervisor Stacey Walker during Wednesday’s State of the County event.

Walker said the county and other local governments have yet to determine specifics like a funding model or even identify all potential partners, calling the effort “complex” and “risky.” But, he said, not only is it the right thing to do to help low-income students who couldn’t otherwise afford to receive postsecondary education, it’s necessary to ensure the local economy has a well-trained workforce.

“Our community is going to be made better and stronger when we’ve got a vibrant and growing workforce, and one of the ways we achieve that is by helping people get trained in the areas that our employers need,” Walker told The Gazette. “How do you address brain drain? How do you address communities that are shrinking? This is a tool to do that.”

Stakeholders will work over the next three to five years developing a framework for the program, with meetings starting Friday. Walker said he isn’t yet sure who all will be included in the meetings or how often they will take place, but once a month at a minimum.

Walker said does envision beginning with a pilot program around Cedar Rapids before expanding it across the county.

It might make sense to require those who take the opportunity to work in the community for some time after they graduate or otherwise have to payback loans, Walker said. But “again, this could change in six months,” he said.

“There will be a lot of questions. I’m comfortable with that and not having all the answers. But I wanted to make it a point to put a vision out there and say that ‘This is where we want to get. We want to live in a community that helps our students get an access to (post) secondary education,’” Walker said during his presentation.

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Akwi Nji, spokeswoman for the Cedar Rapids Community School District, said the district is “passionate” about providing access to postsecondary options for all students. The plan being formed by the supervisors shows awareness of the need to invest in increased access to opportunities beyond high school.

“Coalescing around formal avenues through which we can support the youngest members of our community academically and as they enter the workforce or secondary education is and will remain the nucleus of our work,” Nji said in a statement.

Walker said other details, such as which community colleges would participate, still is yet to be determined. Cedar Rapids-based Kirkwood Community College is a likely starting point but expansion could be in the future as well, Walker said.

Justin Hoehn, spokesman for Kirkwood, said he wasn’t yet able to comment on the announcement as of Wednesday evening, citing few confirmed details and a busy time for the school before its commencement ceremony Saturday.

l Comments: (319) 339-3172; maddy.arnold@thegazette.com

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