For most people, four weeks isn’t enough time to make a significant difference in their lives. But for 20-year-old Whitney Finer, four weeks was enough to kick start her new career pathway in nursing – and best of all, she was able to do it for free.
Finer, a native of Clear Lake, enrolled in the accelerated certified nursing assistant (CNA) program at North Iowa Area Community College (NIACC) to begin her journey towards a nursing degree. She was pleasantly surprised to learn not only could she complete this pre-requisite course in a short amount of time, but she also qualified for tuition and fee assistance through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funding, better known as GEER II Gap Expansion.
“Financially, it was amazing,” she said. “When I found out we get two free pairs of scrubs and free books, it was a big weight off of my shoulders.”
Through GEER II Gap Expansion, Finer saved an estimated $2,000 in tuition and fees for the CNA course.
“The GEER II Gap Expansion funding opened the door for us to provide more supports for the students who are pursuing new education and training opportunities,” said Molly Anderegg, director of education to employment at NIACC. “It helped us meet the needs of our communities and was a game changer for potential students and employers.”
Nearly $2.9 million in GEER II Gap Expansion funding was used to assist Iowans looking to upskill and advance in their careers. All 15 Iowa community colleges offered tuition and fee assistance through GEER II Gap Expansion between July 2021 and September 2023, and for the first time, extended funding assistance to students pursuing short-term credit programs of under 16 credits. GEER II Gap Expansion targeted working adults and provided increased access to both short-term credit programs as well as noncredit certificate courses in high-demand job fields.
“Iowa is one of the first states to dedicate funding for high-demand noncredit and short-term credit courses,” said Paula Nissen, administrative consultant for the Iowa Department of Education. “GEER II Gap Expansion allowed community colleges to assist hard-working Iowans who want to upskill and pursue new career paths but weren’t eligible for other assistance.”
Preliminary data analysis of GEER II Gap Expansion shows that students similar to Finer took advantage of the funding assistance, too, as enrollment in high-demand programs soared across the state.
“The impact we are seeing through GEER II Gap Expansion is incredible,” Nissen said. “High-demand programs saw an increase in enrollment of 145 percent, and nearly 23 percent of students went on to enroll in more credit program courses associated with their new career.”
Other notable highlights included students who completed courses with GEER II Gap Expansion saw an increase in wages by 13.7 percent, and median wages increased nearly 21 percent overall. Programs that saw the highest increase in enrollment due to GEER II Gap Expansion included CNA as well as commercial driver’s license (CDL) programs.
At Western Iowa Tech Community College (WITCC), the CDL program has always been popular with area students. GEER II Gap Expansion made the courses even more accessible to students and allowed for more class offerings.
“We focused our GEER II Gap Expansion funding solely on the two programs that are the biggest need in our community, one of them being CDL,” said Carmen Wilson, associate dean of corporate college at WITCC. “By providing CDL courses, we can strengthen the workforce and Iowa’s economy. More people will be highly trained and ready to work in our local community.”
Students in the four-week CDL course at WITCC saved over $3,000 in tuition and fees, such as books, pre-physicals and drug and alcohol testing.
“GEER II Gap Expansion has been a huge factor that allowed people to get into truck driving in our area,” Wilson said. “Without the assistance, they would have been struggling financially to take advantage of the training opportunity.”
More than 95 percent of the students who completed the CDL course at WITCC are still within the truck driving profession, and Wilson notes that they were able to attract more diverse populations to the field.
“We have a lot of diversity in our students, and we saw that with our use of GEER II Gap Expansion funds, too,” she said. “It allowed a lot of people who wouldn’t have access to enroll in our program.”
Positive results with the recruitment of a diverse student population was also seen around the rest of the state. Minority students represented more than one-third (38 percent) of all students who used GEER II Gap Expansion.
“GEER II Gap Expansion was able to impact so many Iowa adults,” Nissen said. “All of the funding that was issued to community colleges was spent, and we can proudly say that over 95 percent went directly to students through tuition assistance.”
Although GEER II Gap Expansion funding has officially ended, students still have opportunities to receive the same assistance at community colleges. Legislation from 2023 now allows Iowa community colleges to use the regular Gap Tuition Assistance funds for students in noncredit and short-term credit programs.
“The program was an absolute success, no question,” Anderegg said. “We plan to see how we can use existing funding such as Gap Tuition Assistance to continue serving students in the future.”
For Finer, she is currently in her junior year at Coe College in the nursing degree program, and she is using her skills as a CNA in a cardiac unit, assisting nurses and patients. Ultimately, she would like to work in critical care in the intensive care unit and possibly pursue a doctorate in nursing one day. However, she hasn’t forgotten the start of her career path in the CNA program at NIACC and how GEER II Gap Expansion set her up for success.
“I had a great experience,” she said. “It’s prepared me for my future and career.”