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Ohio Puts Kids on the College Track

by Fred D. Baldwin

Amy Russell always dreamed of becoming a teacher. But it wasn't until she and a busload of fellow seniors from Newcomerstown High School attended a college fair on Kent State University's Tuscarawas Campus that she discovered a top-notch program for special education teachers at the University of Rio Grande/Rio Grande Community College. On a subsequent trip to Rio's campus, she "found the school to be small and personable—a lot like home. I decided it would be a good place for me, and it is."

Aided by a grant from the Ohio Appalachian Center for Higher Education (OACHE), Newcomerstown Exempted Village School District is making an all-out effort to encourage its students to continue their education beyond high school. "The grant has helped us do things we couldn't do before—like the trips Amy went on," says high school guidance counselor Patrick Cadle. "We also take students to area businesses and industries to show them what jobs and careers are out there. Our freshmen and sophomores used to come to school just because that's what they were supposed to do. They need a career in mind before looking at colleges."

"We've gone from half our students having no idea what they were going to do after graduation to almost all of them knowing," says high school principal Randy Addy. The new sense of direction Newcomerstown is fostering in students helps explain its soaring college-going rate. During the decade prior to 1993, when the school received the OACHE grant, only a third of Newcomerstown students went on to college. That rate rose to 45 percent in 1994; to 56 percent in 1995; and to 70 percent last year. Cadle calls the 80 percent rate he'd like to see by the year 2000 "reachable and reasonable."

"We want to see Newcomerstown's success repeated throughout our region," says OACHE executive director Wayne White. "OACHE's mission is simple: to motivate more Ohio Appalachians to enroll in college. "About 1.4 million people live in Ohio's 29 Appalachian counties; the college-going rate in those counties lags behind the state average by 10 percentage points and the national norm by 20 percentage points, according to the Institute for Local Government Administration and Rural Development at the Ohio University Center for Public and Environmental Affairs.

About seven years ago, that disparity started bothering farmer, restaurateur, and Appalachian Ohio native Bob Evans, then serving on the state Board of Regents. Ohio was making a concerted effort to get more of its disadvantaged urban youth to go to college. Wasn't it about time the same thing was done for youths in Appalachian Ohio?

Evans posed this question to Clive Veri, president of Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio. At Evans' behest, Veri called together the presidents of nine other colleges and universities serving Appalachian Ohio. Conversations followed with Vern Riffe, then speaker of the state House of Representatives, Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor Elaine Hairston, and Regents Vice Chancellor for External Affairs Bill Napier. The result: a two-year, $100,000 grant from the Board of Regents to study Appalachian Ohioans and college attendance rates.

"A seminal study, definitively describing why Appalachians don't go to college," is Veri's description of the Report of the Appalachian Access and Success Project to the Ohio Board of Regents, published in 1992 by the Institute for Local Government Administration and Rural Development. The study pinpointed both real and perceived barriers to higher education, many of which could be broken down simply by improving communication between parents and school personnel, between high schools and higher education institutions, even between students and their parents.

The Tuition Myth

Only 35 percent of students surveyed believed they could afford college; 58 percent cited lack of finances as the major problem affecting their decision to pursue higher education. Yet 53 percent estimated the cost of attending a two-year college at twice the actual amount; half were unsure whether their parents had saved money to send them to college.

Low self-esteem and a lack of college-educated parental role models were also problems. A quarter of the students rated themselves as not intelligent enough to go to college; only 30 percent thought themselves above average intelligence. Less than a third of parents had any experience with higher education; almost a third had no high school diploma. Yet the study showed that parents—far more than teachers or guidance counselors—were the primary influence on students' decisions to pursue higher education.

In 1993, the Board of Regents obtained a two-year commitment of $500,000 a year from the Ohio General Assembly to establish OACHE, a consortium of the 10 public colleges and universities serving the region. Funding was renewed at about the same level in 1995.

Each consortium member receives $35,000 annually for projects to increase Appalachian students' access to higher education. Funding for the projects is noncompetitive, although plans must be approved by the OACHE board. OACHE also awards a total of $60,000 annually to school districts for projects they design themselves to encourage high school students to enroll in postsecondary education. The grants—up to $5,000 each—are much sought after. Twenty-seven districts have received grants since 1993. Ten of 15 projects funded last fall were new, chosen from 42 "excellent proposals," White says.

That the presidents of eight of the ten consortium schools choose to sit on OACHE's governing board is indicative of their estimation of the center's importance. "OACHE helps us do our work," Veri says.

OACHE's "commitment to preparing families and individuals for entrance into local universities and colleges is what makes this a model program for the community," says Ohio Lieutenant Governor Nancy P. Hollister. "I applaud center director Wayne White's efforts as he strives to provide avenues that will help improve area residents" quality of life. Additionally, the benefits of an educated citizenry equate to future economic development success for Ohio's Appalachian communities."

"This consortium has been an overall positive force in Ohio Appalachia," Muskingum Area Technical College (MATC) president Lynn Willett agrees. "OACHE is one of the few state programs where the whole Appalachian district has come together to work for a common purpose. This kind of project might be transportable to other parts of the Appalachian Region, if not to the Region as a whole. To be successful, though, it needs funding and a Wayne White-type person at the helm."

White's enthusiasm, energy, and optimism are nearly boundless. "You can see why I love my job," he says. "The people running our projects have great ideas and work so hard to make college possible for students." His office at Shawnee State University, where OACHE is headquartered, "is becoming more and more a resource office for educational access information." White stays in close touch with OACHE project coordinators and helps educators in distant districts share ideas.

Yet one of OACHE's strengths is that it does not impose a blueprint on projects. Though many involve similar components, like career exploration and assessment, college visits, and financial aid workshops for parents, each school designs its project to address its community's special needs.

Project CHAMP Pays Off

Project CHAMP at the University of Rio Grande is the only college project offering tutoring to students having trouble passing Ohio's ninth-grade proficiency test. High dropout rates in the four counties the college serves convinced Project CHAMP director Jacob Bapst that "we can't really think about higher education until we've completed basic education." More than 500 students in 16 school districts have been tutored in three years.

Melissa Hughes, a junior journalism major at Rio Grande, remembers the day two teenagers walked into the Dairy Queen where she worked, not to order burgers and milk shakes, but to share some good news: they'd passed the writing section of the proficiency test. "They wanted to thank me for tutoring them. They said that's why they passed," she says. Project CHAMP's efforts are paying off. "We track freshmen," Bapst says. "For the first time, this year we had students who said their initial contact with Rio was through Project CHAMP."

Another facet of Project CHAMP—its BIP (Better Information Program) Breakfasts—is aimed at school personnel rather than at students. "We invite guidance counselors, superintendents, and principals from schools within 75 miles of Rio's campus to hour-long get-togethers. The breakfasts open avenues of communication these people don't normally have," Bapst says.

Larisa Harper, Appalachian Outreach coordinator at MATC, spends much of her time talking to high school juniors about the benefits of going to college. But she's printed up a brochure offering home visits to would-be MATC students who can't visit the college campus. "I set up appointments when the whole family can be there, including Saturdays, at homes as much as two and a half hours away," she says. About 80 percent of those who request home visits later enroll.

Ripley-Union-Lewis-Huntington Learning Organization, one of OACHE's new partner schools, has created a "leadership team," whose membership already includes 100 ninth- to twelfth-graders. The brainchild of special education teacher Kristi Scott, the team is raising students' sights toward college. "We needed student involvement in leadership beyond the student council and FFA [Future Farmers of America]," Scott explains. "All a student has to do to be on the leadership team is sign up—and stay out of trouble."

The team invites motivational speakers to address its meetings and will soon be hearing from former members who have gone on to college. "They're still a part of our school community," Scott says. "When they share their experiences, our students will listen, because it's their peers talking. Our college-going rate has been about 35 percent, and many of those who start soon drop out. We expect the OACHE grant to help us boost our college-going rate big time."

Getting parents to help their children prepare for a future that includes college is sometimes difficult, says Ripley guidance counselor Carole Little. "One student's parents wouldn't help him fill out his financial aid form. Others wouldn't drive their children to take placement tests. Can you suggest some creative ways I can involve parents?" she asks White.

"Talk to Pat Cadle in Newcomerstown," he suggests. "He's full of good ideas."

Good ideas can also be found in the Rust Belt community of Coal Grove in Lawrence County, where three of five factories that operated for decades have closed their doors. The remaining two employ only a fraction of their former workers. "Those factories provided well-paying jobs for three or four generations of our people. We have janitors now who lost their factory jobs who are telling our students, Listen to your educators,' " says Dawson-Bryant Local School District superintendent Don Washburn.

The community's economic doldrums may have put Dawson-Bryant students in a listening mood. But steps Washburn and Dawson-Bryant High School guidance counselor Gary Salyer have taken to make college "much less threatening" are making a difference, too. "Eighty percent of our students were saying they wanted to go on, but only about 20 percent were actually doing it," Salyer says.

College-Going Rate Doubles

In 1995, after Dawson-Bryant High School received an OACHE grant, that college-going rate more than doubled. Last year it rose to 46 percent. With the grant's help, the school added a technology lab that's preparing Coal Grove's students for a new future. Used by the high school students during the day—and at night by continuing education students—the lab provides an introduction to fields like environmental technology, fiber optics, video production, and robotics.

Like Newcomerstown, Dawson-Bryant Local School District is forging bonds between students, area businesses, and nearby colleges. School officials meet regularly with local business leaders. We ask them, point–blank, where the jobs are going to be," Salyer says. "And we've developed close working relationships with the Ohio University Southern Campus in Ironton and the Huntington [West Virginia] Junior College of Business. Their representatives are very familiar faces at our school. We want our students, when they go to those campuses, to have someone they recognize."

Dawson-Bryant parents flocked to a recent sequence of special programs: a college admissions night at the high school in October; a "College Night" (at which 57 colleges were represented) on the Ohio University Southern Campus in November; and a financial aid meeting in January, attended this year by 48 of the parents of the 93 seniors.

To extend its reach, OACHE has secured funding from sources beyond the Ohio legislature. In 1994 it was awarded a five-year U.S. Department of Education grant ($190,000 per year) to help disadvantaged adults enter college; the same year a federally funded AmeriCorps project provided the services of AmeriCorps Members to seven consortium schools, a project that is ongoing.Honeywell, Inc., has provided $6,000 a year since 1994 to underwrite costs of OACHE's annual conference, which drew 250 primary, secondary, and postsecondary educators last year.

Most recently, OACHE received $74,400 from the Appalachian Regional Commission, matched by $18,600 from Ameritech, to conduct an engineering study on linking consortium members and cooperating public schools via an interactive telecommunications system. "We saw the need for interactive TV soon after OACHE began to have success with these projects," White says. While the study is under way, OACHE will seek funding to implement the system.

Educational prospects for Ohio's Appalachian students have come a long way since Evans and Veri held their first conversation. OACHE has proved that "given a very small amount of money, people will go the extra mile and work extraordinarily hard," Veri says. "We're excited about OACHE because it has had so many successes."

"I can't believe all this has happened," Evans says. "I never thought, in just a few years, we could encourage so many Ohio Appalachians to go on to college."

For further information on the OACHE consortium,
visit OACHE's World Wide Web site at

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.