Northeast Iowa Community College students discuss affordability - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Northeast Iowa Community College students discuss affordability

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DUBUQUE (KWWL) -

Amid rising costs of higher education, some eastern Iowa students will be able to voice their concerns this week about affordability.

US Congressman Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) is hosting a series of roundtable discussions this week at three local community colleges.

Tuesday afternoon, he met with students, staff and faculty members and the president of Northeast Iowa Community College at the school's Dubuque campus.

Melissa Gentz is an NICC student who attended the roundtable discussion. Three years ago, however, her situation looked very different.

"February of 2009, I was laid off from a manufacturing job in Buchanan County. Things were not looking good," she said. "My husband is a GM technician. They were on the rocks. We flip houses for a hobby. That fell out from underneath us, so my husband and I made the decision that I would go back to school."

She and other NICC students emphasized the need for financial aid.

"We were on tough financial times. There certainly was no money in a bank account to pay for college, so without FAFSA loans, without the Pell Grant, without scholarships, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be graduating in May," Gentz said.

Tuition, of course, isn't the only hurdle.

Liang Chee Wee is the president of NICC.

"I think one of the things that we face, really, is transportation," Wee said. "Many of our students, that's one of the key things that they face, and so, for us, trying to help students just to access the campus is one thing that we try to do very well."

He said online classes help people access a community college education.

"We have 20 full programs online right now, and it certainly has opened the world to many Iowans and also to those beyond our borders," Wee said.

Increased access to community colleges, Wee said, would positively impact the economy.

"Job placement is there," he said, commenting on the positive economic indicator he's seen at NICC. "The only thing is, we also need skilled people in advanced manufacturing, and that's where the shortage is, and we're working with businesses to make sure we provide programs and training to put more Iowans to work in that sector."

As for Gentz, on the day she was laid off, "I remember walking out to my car and saying, 'I'm never going to make it so easy for an employer to lay me off. I'm going to put some education behind me,'" she said.

With financial aid, she said, that's exactly what she did.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit is a tax credit of up to $2,500 per year to reimburse tuition and some related educational costs for up to four years of post-secondary education. It is set to expire at the end of the year, though Braley is pushing to extend it for another four years through legislation he introduced called the College Tax Cut Extension Act.

Braley will hear from students at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids Wednesday and Iowa Valley Community College in Marshalltown on Thursday.

According to the Iowa Department of Education, among eight Midwest states, Iowa ranks fourth highest in community college tuition rate. The Department predicted community college tuition would increase nearly 5.5 percent from fiscal years 2011 to 2012.

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