Trends in Iowa Education

May 13, 2022 | Trends in Iowa Education Hailey Allen, Freelance Writer,

As another school year wraps up, it feels a bit like New Year’s Eve. Students, educators and institutions alike are taking stock of what they have, and creating new goals for the year to come that will continue the forward momentum of the last few years since the disruption by COVID-19.

Schools have returned to in-person learning after adapting to remote and hybrid models during the peak of the pandemic, but that does not mean they are returning to the same kind of school structures they knew. Many facilities have taken this opportunity to listen to students more than ever before about what is working in education, and what is not. The results are more versatile, accommodating educational programs that have aimed to solve some of the challenges brought to a head  by the pandemic.

Initiatives like work-based learning coordinators in schools, microinternships, experiential learning, and increased flexibility within degree and certificate programs are working to create more involved, well-rounded students, and increase access to different career opportunities.

For businesses, these new trends in Iowa education mean an influx of students graduating from programs that have offered more diverse types of education and training, and potential job candidates with much more resilience and awareness of the world around them. It also means new chances to build stronger workforces from within by offering current employees opportunities to further expand their skills through educational partnerships with local colleges.

Jenae Jenison, director of external engagement at Central College, says she is “hopeful and joyful about the future of the workforce,” thanks to the skills students are gaining in these programs. “We should be optimistic about the future, for Iowa and for our talent here.”

New Ways to Learn

Educators and institutions outmaneuvered the pandemic by adopting new technology and reimagining what education could look like in the absence of in-person classes. What was started as a temporary strategy became a window for opportunity, as one of the biggest current education trends is now a flexible, hybrid model of learning that incorporates faceto-face learning and at-your-own-pace schedules.

This model is especially intriguing for business professionals looking to continue their education, as many people don’t want to put their lives on hold while doing so, says Jill Hansen, Upper Iowa University-Waterloo center director.

“I think it’s about creating a realistic plan. They can’t quit their family, they can’t quit their job, so how can they balance it all? Offering different options of flexibility along with support is how we can meet the needs of the students and extend that into the business world.” 

Emily Shields, executive director of Community Colleges for Iowa, says both students and businesses are looking for a more seamless flow in and out of education as the need arises.

“Maybe someone gets a certificate in one area, and then they want to come back and get their associate’s degree,” Shields explains. “We want the degree to build on the certificate, and then to continue to transfer on to even higher education if they’re interested. [Community Colleges for Iowa] is really focusing on making that possible.”

Online classes not only help working employees gain skills needed to further their career, they have also expanded access to general education throughout Iowa. “Online classes are available to anyone who wants them,” Shields says. “We’re doing so much to spread broadband across the state and make sure everybody has access to high-speed internet and computers.”

Starting Early

According to Community Colleges for Iowa, high school students now account for about 40% of total community college enrollment, thanks to dual credit programs. This trend in and of itself is not new, as dual credit programs have been around for decades. However, there seems to be an increasing push for students completing their education to start early and finish fast.

“We’re seeing a lot of parents and students very interested in saving on college costs and being able to finish sooner,” Shields says. “And not just for college credit leading to the traditional four-year degree. We have career academies with high schools across the state where students can get started on a nursing program or a welding program, and technical fields like that. There’s a shift in understanding of who college is for and what it’s for.”

Students seeking out opportunities earlier are leading to businesses with a large applicant pool to choose from. Jenison says the timeline of businesses hiring for interns is also starting as early as August and September for internships the following summer. This comes as employers seek to engage with these eager students early on, seeking to build the skills the company needs in a future employee.

“If you’re a sophomore in college and you acquire a summer internship, that company is really going to try and retain you for the next two or three years – they’ll hire you throughout the school year, take you on again the next summer, and the summer after that, and so on, because they really want to build students’ employment experience, which in turn builds their own workforce with local talent,” Jenison says.

Purpose-Driven Work

With this shift in understanding of how higher education can benefit students across the spectrum of degrees and careers comes students finding entry into the workforce from a variety of pathways that differ from what has been seen as standard in the past.

“It’s about understanding those wide array of options for all students in a better way,” says Ann Lebo, director of the Iowa Department of Education, “and shifting our academic timeline to fit whatever their specific needs are.” 

As an example, surgeons must spend much longer in school than those in technical apprenticeships, and both of those paths into the full-time workforce will have different timelines per individual. “We have to celebrate all of these, and better engage with our businesses and our schools to understand those array of options so we can prepare for a better future,” says Lebo.

Students are being more purposeful in their choice of careers and the type of companies they work for. According to Jenison, the students at Central College often express the desire to work for companies that are making a difference in the world, and that hold values similar to those of the students and the generation as a whole. “Things like philanthropic giving are really important to our students, and I think in the coming future, employers will really have to appeal to the heart,” she says.

Pingpong in the break room and free coffee vouchers may have worked for millennials, but it seems the ever-connected Gen Z has tapped into a collective thinking toward the greater good. For Iowa, this means students looking to make a difference in their communities and fostering innovation from within. “We need to promote those jobs for kids who want to stay in their communities, grow their communities, and be part of that investment,” says Lebo.