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Filling the financial gap

Date: Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Yolanda Mendoza knows exactly how much it costs to enroll in the Principles of Accounting class at Des Moines Area Community College. It’s $771.

Mendoza, who owns a small insurance business, wanted to pursue the accounting class to strengthen her business management and bookkeeping skills, and she ended up enrolling in the 15-week course in August. Although she was planning to make scheduled payments for the $771, she has recently learned that she qualifies for a new type of financial assistance to help pay for her tuition. 

As part of the federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act that passed in December 2020, Iowa received $11.5 million in discretionary funds through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER II) to address emerging needs from the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly $2.9 million of these funds will be provided to Iowa’s 15 community colleges through competitive grants to help expand the Gap Tuition Assistance program. This limited funding, known as GEER II Gap Expansion, will help expand programming at community colleges across the state and will help support students who are looking to earn short-term credentials for in-demand jobs.

“I think now more than any other time, there is funding available to help students,” said Michael Hoffman, executive director of continuing education at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC). “Whether you are taking an approved short-term, non-credit certificate or credit certificate program, the GEER II Gap Expansion funds can help cover costs. For many people, $600 to $1,000 for tuition can be a burden.”

Prior to the release of the GEER II Gap Expansion funding, students like Mendoza would not qualify for any tuition assistance or other support. Most established financial assistance, such as the general Gap Tuition Assistance and Pathways for Academic Career and Employment (PACE) programs, are income-based. Also, federal Pell grants and the Last Dollar Scholarship programs have requirements for timeframes or enrollment in credit-earning courses. As a result, there has been a gap in assistance for working adults who are simply looking to upskill or potentially change careers. With the new GEER II Gap Expansion funding, students are now able to find assistance for these types of programs, which helps not only students but also employers.

“Many of these people are non-traditional students, working full-time,” said Tammy Steinwandt, DMACC’s health-care coordinator for continuing education. “They want to increase their skills, make a few extra dollars per hour and gain more responsibilities at work. But it’s not just for themselves. They see it as a way to become better employees and help the businesses they work for.”

With the tuition assistance through GEER II Gap Expansion, Mendoza has less stress and fewer barriers in pursuing her college accounting course and learning new techniques for managing her business.

“Running a business and having kids make it a little hard to do this,” she said. “And class is already stressful as it is. Having to not worry about the financial part made it that much easier.”

Since June, DMACC has helped Mendoza and 61 other students with tuition assistance through GEER II Gap Expansion funds. Popular certificates for these students have included certified dietary manager, registered nurse refresher, phlebotomy, emergency medical technician, accounting for entrepreneurs and certified nursing aid programs.

At Iowa Lakes Community College, students have also been taking advantage of the new financial assistance. An additional seven students, ranging in coursework from phlebotomy to bookkeeping, have been able to receive tuition assistance and enter into non-credit programs that will assist them in increasing their professional skills. And Iowa Lakes anticipates demand for this type of funding will continue.

“Everyone is vying for good jobs,” said Jolene Rogers, executive director of community and business relations at Iowa Lakes Community College. “These non-credit certificate programs provide a nice way to open doors and get them the skills they want and need.”

Adult students in short-term credential programs may also find they enjoy taking classes and want to learn more about their area of study, which may prompt them into pursuing other college courses after they complete their current certificate program.

“We have quite a few that start in adult education and literacy, and then roll right into a diploma program for construction or welding,” Rogers said. “I see this happening with our other non-credit programs as well. They find out that college is not a scary place to be.”

Stories on the overall positive impact of GEER II Gap Expansion funding have begun to come in from other community colleges across the state, too. Many of them detail success stories of students who have been able to enroll and complete courses that lead to employment in high-demand career fields.

For instance, Iowa Central Community College reports that a 42-year-old student worked locally as a production operator but was interested in pursuing a production welding certificate. This busy husband and father was initially hesitant to enroll because the course hours overlapped with his work schedule, and he was not sure how he could juggle everything. However, since his employer has a high need for certified welders, his supervisor and plant manager were willing to accommodate his work schedule so he could get the additional training. With assistance through GEER II Gap Expansion funding, this student received assistance with tuition, fees, books, equipment and other materials. After completing the short-term program in 10 weeks, the student earned his certificate and was promoted to welder at his place of employment.

Additionally, Eastern Iowa Community Colleges has found success using their GEER II Gap Expansion funding with students in their commercial driver’s license (CDL) program. One working adult student approached the college already having a Class B license, where he could make pickup and deliveries, but wanted to move forward and earn a Class A certification, which would provide him with more opportunities. Since his wages disqualified him for the general Gap Assistance Program, he would not have been able to receive any financial assistance without the GEER II Gap Expansion program. The student was able to complete the CDL program in August and now is fully employed at a logistics company.

The current GEER II Gap Expansion funding is limited and scheduled to end in June 2023, which will potentially open the gap for tuition assistance and higher education for short-term, non-credit and credit certificate programs once again. Community colleges have understood the need for this type of funding for many years and are already reviewing how they can continue to support these working adult students in the future.

“We couldn’t serve this group of people without the GEER II Gap Expansion grant assistance,” Rogers said. “We are hoping businesses and others will see a value in this, so that funding opportunities can open up in the future.”

For Mendoza, she is planning to pursue a couple of other classes next spring that will help her continue growing her business skills and acumen. She believes her experience has been worthwhile so far, and she is grateful for the financial support.

“I just think it is a great initiative,” she said. “Getting some funding for this certificate program helps people like me better ourselves every day.”

Iowa’s community colleges are encouraged to share their own details on how they are using the GEER II Gap Expansion funding. Students interested in GEER II Gap Expansion funding assistance for short-term, non-credit and credit certificate programs should contact their community college’s financial aid office.