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New partnership gives low-income students a pathway to higher education and a career

January 16, 2014

Drake University President David Maxwell announced the university will partner with Principal Financial Group (PFG), Des Moines Public Schools, and the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines to implement a pilot program called the STEM Pathway Initiative.

The initiative will provide low-income Des Moines high school students a pipeline to higher education and employment in high-demand occupations. The proposal was featured Thursday morning at a White House summit hosted by President Barack Obama focusing on increasing college opportunity for low-income and disadvantaged students.

The Initiative’s first year will pair as many as 20 high school students from DMPS with Drake student mentors and professional mentors at The Principal to explore a variety of professional opportunities including actuarial science, accounting, information technology, finance, and insurance. Participating students will have demonstrated ability in math based on eighth grade assessment scores.

Upon completion of high school, qualified students in the program will be admitted to Drake with necessary financial support. The students will be eligible for paid internships at The Principal during their studies at Drake and considered for employment upon completion of their degree and fulfillment of program requirements.

"This is a major collaborative effort to solve real challenges of college affordability, college readiness, and STEM education among low-income students," said Maxwell. "To address these complex issues we need innovative solutions from public, nonprofit, and private collaborations, and we are fortunate to have such willing and forward-thinking partners in Des Moines."

Drake submitted its proposal for the STEM Pipeline Initiative by invitation of White House officials, who asked colleges to commit to plans for increasing college opportunity for low-income and disadvantaged students. Thursday’s summit formally launched a plan of action by the National Economic Council, the Domestic Policy Council, and the Department of Education for improving college access, and included remarks by President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The Obama administration's call for partnerships catalyzed plans that Maxwell has been discussing with Principal Financial Group Chairman, President, and CEO Larry Zimpleman for some time.

"This summit provided the push that we needed to stop talking about this and take action," Maxwell said. "We've come together to launch a pilot project that is fully scalable and replicable. If it is successful—and we expect it can be—it can serve as a model for additional initiatives in Des Moines and in communities around the country."

Various entities at the federal, state, and local levels have identified a particular shortage of college graduates in the United States who are prepared to work within STEM fields, with the number of STEM-related occupations projected to increase at 1.7 times the rate of non-STEM occupations.

"As Iowa’s largest school district, we have made providing greater access to STEM educational programs a priority across all grade levels," said Tom Ahart, superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools. "The new STEM Pathway Initiative provides another exciting and rewarding opportunity for students in Des Moines to see firsthand how the things they learn in school can translate to college and careers."

Work opportunities at The Principal during and after college will provide strong incentives for high school graduates with an interest in STEM fields to stick with related fields of study while at Drake. Nationally, fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree, according to the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Zimpleman, the current chair of Drake’s Board of Trustees, said every young person should have access to higher education, regardless of family income.

"It’s important for The Principal to have access to a well-educated pipeline of STEM students from Iowa high schools and universities," Zimpleman said. "About a third of The Principal’s current Iowa workforce is in STEM positions, so we have a strong interest in working to encourage students of all backgrounds to pursue education in the STEM disciplines. We look forward to partnering with Drake University, Des Moines Public Schools, and the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines to help support and encourage these deserving students."

And though Drake's STEM Pathway Initiative is designed to prepare students for in-demand and rewarding financial services jobs—Forbes named actuary the top job in America in 2013—the liberal education provided by Drake University will provide students with a broader set of skills that employers value more highly than specific trade skills.

Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines President Kristi Knous said the initiative will improve the quality of life for Iowans now and in years to come.

"By making a commitment to support the professional goals of deserving students through education, mentorship, and financial assistance, we are investing in the future success of our community," Knous said. "We are so proud to join this initiative."