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Development and Progress of the Appalachian Higher Education Network

A Project of the Appalachian Regional Commission
Jeffrey H. Schwartz, Ed.D., ARC Education Program


Appalachia Lags in Postsecondary Education

Appalachia is catching up with the nation as a whole on many socioeconomic indicators—even surpassing the national averages in some areas—but the Region still lags in postsecondary education. The U.S. Department of Education estimates the college-going rate of high school graduates nationwide at 63.3 percent; for Appalachia the rate is between 35 and 55 percent, according to Commission data. And only 17.7 percent of the population age 25 and older in Appalachia has a college degree, compared with 24.4 percent of the population in the nation as a whole. While this gap may not appear large, it is growing. Because at least some college or postsecondary training is now necessary to obtain jobs that pay a livable wage, it is critical that we close the college-going gap between Appalachia and the nation.

The Appalachian Higher Education Network Seeks to Increase Educational Attainment Increasing the college-going rate and raising educational attainment levels is the mission of the Appalachian Higher Education (AHE) Network. The Network is based on a successful college access program in Appalachian Ohio—the Ohio Appalachian Center for Higher Education (OACHE)—which was established in 1993 by the Ohio Board of Regents. Since 1998, the Appalachian Regional Commission has helped establish centers in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Consortia of two- and four-year institutions of higher education and community-based nonprofit organizations run each center. In 2003, the original center in Ohio won the "Innovations in American Government Award" from the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Network Centers are Models of Success

All centers have achieved high rates of success. The key to their success? The director of OACHE attributes it to total school buy-in, with all teachers and administrators participating in and "owning" the program. Schools served by OACHE and the West Virginia Center (the first site to replicate the OACHE program) have shown consistent, sustained gains in their college-going rates. AHE Network centers now report several high schools with college-going rates well above the national average of 63.3 percent, with some schools in Mississippi and Alabama reporting 100 percent of their 2003 graduating seniors continued their education. Annual increases of 25 to 30 percentage points in college-going rates are common in the first years of implementation.

Network centers offer competitive grants, training, and technical assistance to high schools to sponsor college visits, mentoring programs, and career exploration programs. Centers also help students identify and apply to colleges, and address the emotional and social barriers to attending college that students face.

ARC is working with the state governments, foundations, and corporations in the Region to establish more centers.

Commission Support of AHE Network Centers

ARC provides training and support services to center directors. Sarita Gattuso, director of the West Virginia Center, coordinates these services. Gattuso and Wayne White, director of the original center in Ohio, mentor new directors and provide consultative services and training to new sites. New directors attend the Ohio and West Virginia conferences for participating high schools to learn more about the process. White and Gattuso also travel to new sites to observe and assist with implementation.

ARC also provides training and helps to obtain other sources of funding for centers. After two years of support from ARC, each center is expected to have helped increase the college-going rates of high school graduates and to be able to attract adequate funding to maintain services.

Since 1998, ARC has provided $982,405 to establish and expand the AHE Network. Nineteen percent ($184,787) of that amount has been spent on support activities, including training and mentoring for directors of new centers. The remaining 81 percent of ARC funding has been provided directly to the centers to support start-up and initial operating costs. Commission investment in the AHE Network, which includes $75,000 from a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Grant, has leveraged over $1.1 million in state and local funds.

More Research on the Region and about Individual Students is Needed
Research on the long-term impact of the AHE Network and similar programs on Appalachian students is scant. Though the increased number of students attending some form of postsecondary education has been carefully documented, we do not know what happens to students after they enter college.

Another area requiring more research is "brain drain" from Appalachia. Census data shows that many parts of Appalachia are losing people—particularly young people and those in the prime earning years of 25 to 50. Formal research is not available on whether the AHE Network and similar programs have an impact on migration patterns.

More Centers are Needed to Serve All States

ARC's goal is to have AHE Network centers in all 13 Appalachian states serving all Appalachian counties, beginning with counties and areas identified as economically distressed.

The existing eight centers have the capacity to serve only 60 to 75 high schools in a given year, out of more than 300 in ARC-designated economically distressed counties alone. And not all states or distressed counties are currently served. Given that Network centers work with each school for at least two to three consecutive years, it would be at least 10 years before these eight centers reached all high schools in economically distressed counties for an initial round of assistance—and that does not include the high schools in distressed areas of other counties.

A Discussion of the Development and Progress of the AHE Network.
This report discusses the critical need for postsecondary education, and for the AHE Network itself. It also discusses the history and effectiveness of the AHE Network model and how ARC has grown the Network, and provides preliminary data on the impact and success of individual centers. Future directions for the Network and the need for further research on the impact of these, and similar, programs on individual students and the Region itself are also presented.