The 2017 legislative session was a disaster for working Iowans. I have never seen an administration fight so hard for low-paying jobs. Iowa can and must do better, particularly for rural and smaller communities – like my hometown of Charles City – that too often have been left behind.
The challenges in that “forgotten Iowa” are real, and they are significant.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average annual wage in the top ten counties in Iowa is $7,500 more than the average wages in the other 89 counties in the state.
This is unacceptable. When our economic focus leaves hundreds of thousands of Iowans out of the equation, it’s not just those communities that suffer. All of our lives become poorer.
A real increase in wages, particularly in rural communities, starts by investing in education – particularly the post-secondary schools that light the path to job opportunities. Iowa simply cannot expect to be competitive and maintain a skilled workforce if we continue to slash funding for our community colleges, which serve over 90,000 Iowans per semester in cities, towns, and rural areas across our state.
Fifty years ago, Iowa established itself as a national leader in community colleges. That effort, led by State Senator Jack Kibbie, created a network of schools that provide traditional and nontraditional students unprecedented access to higher education and the ability to learn critical new skills. Kibbie and other Iowa leaders also recognized how community colleges drive long-term economic growth by producing a workforce that can fill jobs in new and emerging industries.
Millions of Iowans benefitted directly by attending one of Iowa’s community colleges. Millions more benefited as wages in the state grew, economic opportunities expanded, and we built up the Iowa middle class.
But we have fallen off that path as Republicans look for savings in our budget to fund giveaways to the largest companies in the state’s urban areas. Those companies, and the communities in which they are located, are doing well – and that’s good news. But at the very same time, working and middle class families in the “forgotten Iowa” are struggling and need help now.
It’s time we recommit to our shared Iowa values that prioritize common sense, hard work, and community improvement. It’s time for Iowa to adopt a program that provides universal access to our community colleges.
Nationally, this is a bipartisan idea. Republican governors in Tennessee and Arkansas, working with their Republican-controlled legislatures, recently passed and enacted this program.
In launching Arkansas Future Grants, Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson said their program will “ensure all Arkansans have access to affordable higher education and will send a clear message to prospective employers that the state is committed to building the 21st Century workforce that will attract industry and allow the Arkansas economy to thrive.” If Republicans in Arkansas can find the political will to expand community college access, surely this is an initiative that every Iowan can embrace.
Specifically, here is what I’m proposing:
- Any Iowan, whether they are a recent high school graduate or an adult looking to learn new skills later in life, will be able to receive free tuition at one of our state’s 15 community colleges.
- Priority will be given to students who enter a field designated as high demand where the need for more workers is greatest.
- Recipients must dedicate time as a volunteer or mentor in their community.
- Students will need to pursue all available state and federal aid before accepting grants through this program.
- Finally, after graduation, students must work in Iowa for at least three years or the grant will need to be repaid to the state.
In Arkansas, a state with virtually the same population as Iowa, this program costs $8 million per year, which is about 0.11% of Iowa’s total budget.
The sustained health of our economy is worth that investment. Investing in Iowans is a better way to secure long-term wage growth than handing over millions of dollars whenever a company comes calling based on an arbitrary set of criteria.
But that’s apparently not a priority for the Branstad/Reynolds Administration. Recently, they chose to offer $8 million to a company that promised to add only 10 jobs in Central Iowa. That’s right, you can literally count the jobs on two hands. That $8 million would be far better spent funding the first year of universal community colleges, helping Iowans across all our communities contribute to our economy in more meaningful ways.
Universal access to community colleges will lower student debt, improve workforce shortages in rural communities, and train Iowans for the jobs of the 21st Century. By creating a better and more skilled workforce, companies will be far more likely to locate in Iowa on their own initiative, not because they receive a massive taxpayer giveaway.
The challenges in front of us are significant, but there are common sense ways we can begin tackling those challenges right now. Let’s come together and move our state forward – the entire state, including rural Iowa – by enacting a smart, fiscally disciplined program that gives Iowans universal access to our community colleges and improves the economic landscape in all 99 counties.
by Todd Prichard