Free tuition program in the works for Linn Co.

College students across Iowa will receive their diplomas this month, and for many of them, they’ll also be picking up thousands of dollars in student loan debts.

According to the Institute for College Access and Success, 63 percent of 2017 graduates from four-year colleges in Iowa had some amount of debt, which is the ninth-highest rate in the country. Their average debt is $29,859, slightly higher than the national average.

“I think they’re a big problem for recent grads, just because a lot of the times, you take out all the student loans, and even sometimes, people don’t get a job out right away, and they’re not able to deal with that debt that they have accumulating, and it just keeps building up and up,” said Michael Bielecki, who graduated from the University of Iowa on Sunday with a degree in biomedical engineering.

Those high costs could be holding some students back from furthering their education.

“I think up to all of us to figure out a way in which we can increase access to postsecondary education,” said Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker.

Walker recently announced plans in his 2019 State of the County address for a new program that would guarantee at least two years of free higher education for students who may not be able to afford it.

The program is still in the very early stages, and there aren’t many details about it right now.

“We are in the process of talking with education experts, community leaders, private sector, all of the folks necessary to make this project go,” Walker said.

But Walker said it would help with a local and statewide problem: that businesses can’t find enough qualified people to fill open jobs.

“A recent existing industry report from the [Cedar Rapids Metro] Economic Alliance found that 82 percent of responding companies noted that they’re having trouble finding good talent to help their businesses grow, and 40 percent of companies said that the number of unfilled positions in their company is increasing,” Walker said.

He believes this program could help shrink those shortages and better Linn County as a whole.

“There is an economic incentive for training young people in the skills and fields that you will need for the future,” he said.

Walker said that ideally, the program would be paid for by contributions from both the private and public sectors.

“Ideally, we could achieve this goal without using taxpayer revenue, but I am fully prepared to consider what kind of responsibility our government has to growing our economy by helping to train our future employers,” he said.

Some recent University of Iowa graduates said they liked the sound of a program like this.

“I think it’d be a good idea,” Gary Gifford, an environmental engineering major, said. “Definitely save some money, go and get the gen eds out of the way and then start focusing on more engineering-related classes, if that’s what they want to do.”

“I think I’d be a great idea to help fund them if they’re not able to pay for that themselves because you don’t want people to stagnate if they have the wish to learn,” Bielecki added.

Walker said the goal is to get the program up and running within the next three to five years, but he added that there’s the possibility it could be implemented even earlier than that.

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