In 2021, University of Northern Iowa (UNI) partnered with Waterloo Community School District and Hawkeye Community College to create affordable degree pathways for students to fast-track into high-demand careers in Iowa. The Cedar Valley Degree Links program helps students earn degrees in several areas through accelerated tracks in which they start earning college credits in high school tuition-free. By doing so, they effectively eliminate a full year of postsecondary education and reduce their out-of-pocket expenses. The Cedar Valley Degree Links program is the first partnership of its kind between higher education institutions and a K–12 school system in the state. Initially, students were offered programs in construction, manufacturing, and graphic technology; in 2022, the partnership expanded to include elementary education.
Ultimately, the Cedar Valley Degree Links initiative seeks to remedy critical workforce shortages in the Cedar Valley region through academic pathways that not only make postsecondary education accessible and affordable but also grow the racial and ethnic diversity of the region’s workforce and keep talented individuals in the community.
The Cedar Valley Degree Links’ new “Degree in Three” program for students interested in elementary education demonstrates how the collaboration among the various educational institutions works. In high school, students take the equivalent of one year of selected high school and community college courses offered through the Waterloo Community School District. The students then finish their associate degrees at Hawkeye Community College in one year and transfer to UNI to complete their bachelor’s degrees in two years. Essentially, the elementary education pathway enables students to be licensed and practicing teachers in classrooms—an in-demand position—within three years of graduating from high school rather than four. Because they complete one year of college coursework in the school district, these students avoid paying that year’s tuition, making this program an affordable and attractive option.
UNI continues to evaluate enrollment, retention, and persistence of the Cedar Valley Degree Links’ degree programs to assure three-year completion rates are met in accordance with the stated objectives of the partnership.
The larger goal behind this collaboration is to demonstrate how this program can be scaled to other school districts and community colleges, so they can attract more learners into high-quality, in-demand degree programs and keep them living and working in Iowa.
For the Cedar Valley region, the program’s academic pathways are among a growing number of programs offered at the Waterloo Community School District’s Waterloo Career Center, which has experienced substantial growth since it opened in 2016. The center leaped from around 35 students to about 1,800 in 2020 alone, attracting individuals from private schools and other school districts.
Graduates from the the Cedar Valley Degree Links’ fast-growing construction and manufacturing pathways, in particular, can benefit from earning their bachelor’s degrees. UNI has a nearly 100% job-placement rate, with students being hired at starting salaries in excess of $60,000.
UNI, Waterloo Community School District, and Hawkeye Community College are excited about the program’s success and plan on adding more degree pathways in the near future.
For the Cedar Valley Degree Links program to be successful, particularly in the elementary education pathway, the three partners had to do some soul searching. They each had to give a little in terms of the academic program’s articulation and focus on what was most critical to prepare a student for success during the educational program and throughout their careers. What that meant for the faculty stakeholders involved in crafting this partnership is the willingness to have a broad conversation about where along the path students were garnering the skills required to be proficient in their professional path. For the Degree in Three program on educator preparation, that meant taking a look at each course provided by Waterloo Community Schools, Hawkeye Community College, and the University of Northern Iowa and removing any duplicative courses to provide a streamlined path that assured the student also developed the skills and competencies required of successful teaching practice. In addition, the outreach by the Degree Links partners to elected and appointed officials to raise awareness of the program is helpting to elevate the impact and scalability of this program.
A strong relationship between the university, community college, and school district was critical to the development and successful launch of the DegreeLinks Partnership and the Degree in Three Educator Preparation Program within it. Together, the DegreeLinks partners were able to assess strategic needs with a bird’s eye view of shared needs, challenges, and opportunities, and to envision an effective and cohesive approach that ultimately benefits the student. Utilizing workforce projection data, assessing student interests, and identifying mutual needs and potential approaches helped to construct actionable and sustainable solutions to complex workforce challenges and the barriers often faced by underrepresented students.
Answering the urgent call to remove barriers to accessible and equitable pathways for an increasingly diverse student demography, this program paves the way for similar programs to be adopted throughout the state, region, and beyond. The program partners hosted launch events with state-elected and appointed leaders to plant seeds for how the state can grow programs that reach new learners while assuring adequate preparation for life and work upon graduation.
“These partnerships are exactly what we need to rethink how we do school and what we think about opportunities—and what that means for our kids and our communities.”
Ann Lebo, director, Iowa Department of Education