Introducing the Community College Gap Assistance Program

twenty dollar bill on a pile of quartersThe Lincoln Journal-Star makes a good point: High school graduates seeking professional certificates or training in nondegree programs cannot apply for aid from federal or state governments.

Compared to the aid available for students on a university track, these students face a steep financial climb if they want to boost their skills, find on-the-job training, or study for a vocational career. If you’ve read our blog posts on the skills gap so far, you may be thinking about the incongruity between federal aid available for education for these jobs, and the amount of jobs that need to be filled.

In a 2014 survey, the Nebraska State Chamber of Commerce asked 1,200 business leaders what their biggest challenge was. More than half of the companies surveyed said hiring qualified employees was their biggest challenge, and one-fourth indicated the lack of skilled labor was preventing them from growing their businesses.

The clear dissonance between these two areas sparked the idea for the Community College Gap Assistance Program, approved earlier this month by the legislature. The bill was brought to the table by Senator Kate Bolz of Lincoln, a long-time fan of education and utilizing schools to improve the U.S. economy. Bolz attended Nebraska Wesleyan University, and still works hard to foster Nebraska education: “We can target our current Department of Labor and Education resources to train and educate workers for the science and technology jobs that are in the greatest demand,” she answered when asked about how she proposes to increase the number of jobs for Nebraskans. Her bill is modeled after the Iowa Gap Tuition Assistance program, and carves out revenue from the Nebraska Lottery to fund the program.

“It’s truly filling a gap,” Bolz said to the Journal-Star. “Federal financial aid does not extend to these short-term programs despite the fact they add significant value to the workforce.” So, how does her answer to the problem work?

The bill will start with $1.5 million of lottery funds in 2016 to pay tuition, fees, equipment costs, and administrative costs for resident students with a family income no more than two and a half times the federal poverty limit. There are a few other caveats: Mike Baumgartner, executive director of the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education, explained that each applicant must agree to attend business classes, meet with a faculty adviser, and develop a job search plan. Even with these requirements, the funding options are still leaps and bounds better than before the bill was passed.

“The speed of business moves faster than that of education,” Bolz said. “We see this as a way to help people improve their skill-set, then use that to get in the door at a company and potentially continue on through higher education but be better positioned to pay for it.”

photo credit: $50 and quarters via photopin (license)