Iowa’s community colleges are looking to fill workforce needs in part by retraining more adult workers in high-demand fields, but also by improving retention and graduation of the students already enrolling at the schools, officials said.
President Obama has called for 5 million more community college graduates by the end of the decade. Iowa community college leaders said focusing on retraining adult workers and workforce development partnerships are among the ways Iowa will help meet that goal.
But another important focus is retention — ensuring that Iowans who enroll at the state’s 15 community colleges complete programs or degrees. It’s a pipeline that’s just as important as adult workers and high school students, said Steve Ovel, executive director of governmental relations at Kirkwood Community College, with main campuses in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
“We want to reduce that drop-off rate from the first semester to the second semester, from the first year to second year,” Ovel said. “It’s an issue we’re very, very focused on.”
Community college leaders in Iowa are working with the Department of Education to figure out what Iowa’s share should be of President Obama’s call for 5 million more graduates, said MJ Dolan, executive director of the Iowa Association of Community College Trustees. Officials hope by this fall to have a goal number in place and defined metrics to measure how the schools are working toward it, she said.
Iowa community colleges are taking steps such as requiring orientation for all students, so they better know what’s expected of them, and of doing away with late registration for classes once the semester starts, which contributes to higher dropout rates, Dolan said.
Des Moines Area Community College is among the schools that now requires an orientation course for all students, said Jeremy Varner, administrator of the community colleges division with the Iowa Department of Education. Other colleges are putting resources into more advising and early-warning programs for when students begin to struggle, he said.
“Getting more through to graduation — that’s where a lot of that focus is,” Varner said.
Students who started at Iowa community colleges in 2009-10 averaged a 50 percent rate of graduation or transfer to another school within three years, according to state data.
Kirkwood’s new math emporium concept is one initiative aimed at retaining students. Math is a “stigma class” that’s probably least loved by many students, said Math and Science Dean Lori Woeste. When a student struggles with math, it puts a barrier up and can contribute to non-completion.
“This environment is aimed at breaking down those barriers,” Woeste said of the concept, launched at Kirkwood a few semesters ago.
Students work in a computer lab where an instructor is always on hand for one-on-one discussion, and the students work at their own pace. Say a student has a grasp on many math concepts but struggles with a few. In the emporium model, students signs up for the Prep for College Math course, where they demonstrate competency in the “modules” they are confident about and then focus their time on the areas where they need work, Woeste said. About 1,200 students will take the class this fall in newly renovated lab space with 118 computers.
“Other students don’t know which level of math you’re working on, you go at your own pace, so there really won’t be a stigma attached,” Woeste said.
New initiatives — whether aimed at retention or skills training in high-demand fields — require funding, and community college officials say they’ve been pleased recently with state support.
Iowa community colleges received $13 million in new state general aid for the current year, though the schools are still several million below 2009 funding levels, Ovel said. But college leaders are optimistic about funding for next year, now under discussion in the Legislature, he said.
The financial picture in Iowa is better than in many other states, officials said, which puts community colleges here in a better situation in many respects.
However, student tuition and fees make up 58 percent of community college budgets statewide — at Kirkwood it’s 62 percent — and school officials want state funding to be a larger portion of that formula.
One area that’s been a targeted priority for funding is job training and workforce development, officials said. New money from the Legislature last year launched two financial aid programs — one a tuition grant aimed at skilled worker shortages in fields like nursing, information technology and advanced manufacturing, and the other tuition-gap assistance for students earning noncredit skills certificates.
And a recent $13 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor is funding a statewide initiative to boost advanced manufacturing training at Iowa community colleges.
“It’s not just the president asking us to increase students in technical degree programs,” Ovel said. “Our business partners are asking us to do that, too.”