Casie Sparks is one of many Mount Mercy University students working toward a college degree. However, the 35-year-old is employed full time as a client relationship development consultant at AEGON in Cedar Rapids.

She is among a wave of non-traditional students that Eastern Iowa colleges have been targeting for training recently.

Some of these non-traditional students are taking these courses as part of their job training. Some have been laid off. Many are taking the courses to help them move up the career ladder.

It’s for reasons like these that the Mount Mercy’s Adult Accelerated Program and similar programs are targeting the working students.

“Earning a degree is your best insurance against unemployment,” Tom Castle, the accelerated program’s dean, said.

Castle said the need for higher learning among employees benefits both the college and the employee. “They might have a particular interest in getting their degree so they can advance their career,” he said about the students. “That’s an opportunity for us to help them do that.”

One other aspect that draws students is that some faculty members are executives at the various companies the students work at, providing them an opportunity to learn as well as network.

Filling the demand

Sparks found out about Mount Mercy’s Adult Accelerated Program through AEGON. “I wanted to complete my four-year degree, which I had started before having children,” she said.

Sparks, who has a son and a daughter, is a Le Mars native, and went to the University of Iowa right out of high school. However, she left early and went to Kirkwood Community College to get her two-year degree and now lives in Hiawatha.

The courses she is taking, including business law, marketing, risk management and accounting, are geared toward her field of work. AEGON is paying her costs because of that connection to her job. “It is helping in that aspect of my job as kind of a training tool,” she said.

Castle said the recruiting process is different from recruiting high school students. He sets up booths at various community career fairs and at companies to attract students. “We need to market ourselves communitywide,” he said.

Mount Mercy courses tailored to business and finance can cost from $1,200 to $1,600. Instructors say companies reimburse costs for about half of the students.

Many students in the Adult Accelerated program are working at companies in Cedar Rapids like Rockwell-Collins, AEGON, US Cellular and Great America Leasing, and come straight to night classes after work — what some instructors call “the night shift.”

Companies see benefits

Elizabeth Kueter, a senior project manager at Rockwell Collins, wrote in an e-mail that most of that company’s employees take courses at places like Mount Mercy, but also from other MBA or technical master’s programs. “These programs have become more global in nature which is important for our employees to study and learn especially since our business is showing growth in the international marketplace,” Kueter wrote in the e-mail.

Katie Witte, a human resources specialist at Great America Leasing, said while it’s not required for on-the-job training, the company tries to promote lifelong learning among its employees. “They find it beneficial to their learning and personal development,” she said. “They’re more aware of the various facets of the business.”

Witte said the company has often had successful employees come from Mount Mercy. “It’s just been a natural pipeline for us,” she said.

Upside for higher ed

Other colleges in Cedar Rapids, with the exception of Coe College, provided similar courses. Chris Mason, campus director of University of Phoenix campus in Des Moines, said the Cedar Rapids campus, which is completely made up of non-traditional students, caters specifically to students who have jobs.

The college is developing partnerships nationally with companies like Wells Fargo, Mason said. “I think our programs and our learning model are becoming more recognized with employers throughout the country,” he said.

Amy Lasack, director of Kirkwood Community College’s department of training and outreach, said her department contracts with companies to set up training programs, although some employees enroll in courses on their own.

“We reach out to companies to talk to them about what their needs are,” she said. “We work with them one on one to really customize it.”

Lasack said the community at large should benefit from the educated workers. “Our economy’s only going to be as strong as our work force,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re constantly improving the skill set of the people who are looking for work.”

Kirkwood uses fairs and brochures to bring in students.

Smaller schools find niche

Schools like Upper Iowa University and St. Ambrose University also have tapped into the growing interest in professional development from businesses and working students. Upper Iowa’s main campus is in Fayette but it has centers in Cedar Rapids and other parts of Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois, which are made up of students with jobs.

Kristi Tisl, center director for Upper Iowa’s Cedar Rapids center, said school leaders have noticed a rise in students who are employed. “(They’re) individuals who want to go further in their company,” Tisl said of the students. “They also want to have the best skills they can.”

Jennifer Prinz, St. Ambrose’s director of professional development, said most students in programs there are working, and companies often pay for the education, which can cost from $199 for a one-day grant writing course to a $5,295 20-week executive management programs.

The need to upgrade is vital. Prinz pointed out that although the job market is improving, some jobs require fewer people to do more work.

“People are definitely having to do more with less,” she said.

(Tyler Harris, an IowaWatch staff writer, wrote this piece for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. It is published on IowaWatch with permission from The Gazette.)

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