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Iowa Officials Aim To Fix Flaw In New College Scholarship Program

Katarina Sostaric
Gov. Kim Reynolds addresses the Future Ready Iowa Summit in Des Moines on April 30.

This school year, some college students are getting help from a new state-funded scholarship that was proposed by Gov. Kim Reynolds as a way to prepare Iowans to fill high-demand jobs. But an error in the law means many 19-year-olds can’t qualify for this form of financial assistance, known as the Last Dollar Scholarship.

Based on financial need, the scholarship covers tuition costs that remain after other aid programs are applied. The Iowa Legislature gave the new program over $13 million for the current fiscal year.

Students going straight to college after high school and enrolling in eligible programs can qualify for the scholarship, as can adults aged 20 and older who are getting started on a new degree or certification.

“Potentially, if you’ve got somebody who graduated from high school a year ago but is still 19, they would fall into that gap,” said Elizabeth Keest Sedrel, communications coordinator for Iowa College Aid.

She said students and colleges contacted Iowa College Aid about the problem.

Sedrel said students coming out of high school must enroll in full-time classes, but adult learners aged 20 and older are allowed to enroll in part-time classes. She said that decision was based on research showing recent high school graduates are more likely to complete a community college degree if they’re taking classes full time.

“As we’re trying to steer everybody into the programs that are going to be the most successful for them, what ended up happening was this one year gap in the middle,” Sedrel said.

The Iowa College Student Aid Commission is scheduled to discuss a possible solution to this issue at its meeting this Friday. It may recommend categorizing students under age 20 as recent high school graduates, who would be required to enroll in full-time classes to be eligible for the Last Dollar Scholarship.

Lawmakers will ultimately have to vote on any changes to the program during the legislative session that starts in January 2020. The scholarship is part of Reynolds' Future Ready Iowa initiative. 

Asked about the gap in the program, Reynolds spokesman Pat Garrett said in a statement the new scholarship “has achieved overwhelmingly positive results.”

“We are already working with community colleges and state agencies to expand the program to help even more students attend college at a far lower cost,” Garrett said. “It will be one of the first things we tackle this legislative session.”

Des Moines Area Community College Financial Aid Director Ean Freels said some students there were ineligible for the scholarship because of the gap in the law. He said the college is working with state officials on solving the problem.

Freels pointed to the more than 1,000 DMACC students who got about $1.1 million in assistance through the Last Dollar Scholarship.

“I can tell you the students that I’ve spoken with, it has allowed students to borrow less to access education,” Freels said. “It’s allowed them to reduce their stress for having to work as much while they’re going to college because this scholarship gives them peace of mind.”

Sedrel said the state will have more information about how many students got the scholarship in October.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter