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Unlike their college-bound peers, high school graduates seeking professional certificates or training in nondegree programs cannot apply for aid from the federal or state governments.

The lack of financial aid for those programs has placed a serious strain on the state’s economy, the Nebraska State Chamber of Commerce indicated in a 2014 survey of some 1,200 business leaders.

More than half of the companies surveyed said hiring qualified employees remained their biggest challenge, while at least one-fourth indicated the lack of skilled labor was preventing them from growing their businesses.

The Community College Gap Assistance Program approved earlier this month by the Legislature would provide financial aid to lower-income students and employees wishing to boost their skills through noncredit programs at Nebraska's community colleges.

“It’s truly filling a gap,” said state Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln, who introduced the bill. “Federal financial aid does not extend to these short-term programs despite the fact they add significant value to the workforce.”

Modeled after the Iowa Gap Tuition Assistance Program, Bolz’s bill was rolled into LB519, which carves out revenue from the Nebraska Lottery to fund a wide range of programs.

Nebraska’s gap assistance program, which will start with $1.5 million of lottery funds in 2016, pays tuition, fees, equipment costs and some administrative costs for resident students with a family income no more than two and a half times the federal poverty limit.

Each applicant must also agree to meet regularly with a faculty adviser, attend business classes and develop a job search plan, said Mike Baumgartner, executive director of the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education.

They must also be seeking employment in career fields deemed “in-demand” by lawmakers, including financial, computer, engineering or health services, transportation and logistics, manufacturing, biosciences, business management, renewable energy, hospitality and tourism.

Kent Farver, bureau chief of the Iowa Department of Education’s Community Colleges Bureau, said the Iowa program has existed since 2010, but only received a designated appropriation of $2 million from lawmakers in 2013.

“When it was first passed during the recession, there wasn’t a lot of state money available,” Farver said.

Once it received designated funding, he said, the program has grown and experienced increasing demand and success rates, with most of the funding used to pay tuition costs at Iowa community colleges.

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At least 85 percent of the 1,631 applicants accepted into Iowa's gap tuition program completed training certificates last year, and more than half of those who finished reported getting new jobs.

That’s up from 2013, when 84 percent of the 998 applicants approved for gap tuition assistance completed the program.

Farver said the bureau is tracking participants who complete the program over three to five years to gauge its long-term success.

Bolz said lawmakers heard the call from Nebraska’s business sector to help both employers and employees find each other, especially in response to a 2012 Georgetown University study that indicated 70 percent of Nebraska jobs will require some postsecondary education by the year 2020.

“The speed of business moves faster than that of education,” Bolz said. “We see this as a way to help people improve their skill-set, then use that to get in the door at a company and potentially continue on through higher education but be better positioned to pay for it.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com. On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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