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Development and Progress of the Appalachian Higher Education Network

In 1998, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) began developing what is now the Appalachian Higher Education (AHE) Network. The AHE Network, currently composed of eight centers, has the mission of increasing the college-going rate in Appalachia, the numbers of students who continue their education directly after graduating high school. This paper discusses why a postsecondary education is so critical and the need for the AHE Network in the Region. It then describes the history and effectiveness of the AHE Network model and presents preliminary data on the impact and success of individual AHE Network centers. The paper concludes with a discussion of future directions for the network and the need for research on the long-term impact of these and similar programs on individual students.



As the nation and the world move into the post-industrial era, the need for more workers in all occupations to have higher levels of both knowledge and skills grows. Postsecondary education (The terms "postsecondary education" and "higher education" are used synonymously in this paper. Similarly, "college" is used to refer to any postsecondary institution, including two-year colleges, four-year colleges, and postsecondary technical and vocational schools.) is quickly becoming a necessity for all and the level required is continuing to rise. A U.S. Department of Education–commissioned paper on workforce and job-opening projections (From Anthony P. Carnevale and Donna M. Desrochers. "The Missing Middle: Aligning Education and the Knowledge Economy." (Figure 9.) Paper commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocation and Adult Education and presented at Preparing America's Future: The High School Symposium, April 4, 2002, Washington, D.C. readily demonstrates this. Between 1998 and 2008, 15 percent of the labor force aged 16 to 24 will be high school dropouts, but only 9 percent of new jobs and 12 percent of all jobs will be available to high school dropouts. At the other end of the spectrum, 61 percent of the labor force will have some postsecondary education or higher, but 64 percent of all jobs—including 69 percent of all new jobs—will require at least some postsecondary education. In other words, given the current projections, we are guaranteeing that we will have both unemployment and unfilled jobs, a situation that exists today in many regions and job sectors.

Pressing the point even further are the data gathered by the Census Bureau on incomes in 2000. (Employment, Work Experience, and Earnings by Age and Education: Civilian Noninstitutional Population [Data from the 2000 Census.] (See Figure 1.) The median income for all year-round full-time workers that year was $32,717. High school dropouts earned an average of only $21,332 per year, while those with a bachelor's degree made twice as much, $42,877. The income of a high school dropout is not sufficient to support a family of four above the federal poverty line. In order to find a job that will enable an individual and his or her family to live independent of government support, at least some postsecondary education is now essential.

Figure 1. Average Earnings by Educational Attainment in 2000

Figure 1 shows average earnings by educational attainment in 2000. Individuals who were not high school graduates had average earnings of $21,332. High school graduates had average earnings of $27,351. Those with some college had average earnings of $31,988. Those with a bachelor's degree had average earnings of $42,877. Those with an advanced degree had average earnings of $55,242.



A survey of the literature on high school graduation rates shows that the United States has made tremendous progress in the past 100 years. In the early 1900s, approximately 8 percent of the population graduated from high school. In the early 2000s, that number is approaching 90 percent. In 1973, about one-third of Americans in skilled blue-collar jobs did not have a high school degree and only 17 percent had any postsecondary education. In 25 years those numbers more than reversed: in 1998, only 11 percent were high school dropouts and 48 percent had at least some postsecondary education or a degree. (From Scott Loftus, "Every Child a Graduate," Alliance for Excellent Education, September 2002.

Commission analysis of 2000 Census data shows that while Appalachia is catching up with the nation as a whole on some indicators, the region still lags the nation in the critical postsecondary education rates. The percent of the population age 25 or older in the Appalachian region with only a high school diploma or the equivalent is 35.8 compared with 28.6 percent nationwide. (See Table I and Figure 2.) While Appalachia having a higher percentage with high school diplomas looks favorable—and we have made strides in closing the high school graduation gap—the data shows that not only does a larger share of the Region's population than the nation's not have a high school diploma but that many more high school graduates are remaining at that level instead of continuing their education. Indeed, the postsecondary educational attainment gap between the Region and the nation is widening and is now over ten percentage points with only 41.0 percent of the Appalachian population having some postsecondary education or higher compared with 51.8 percent of the nation's. And given the current college going rates of 63.3 percent (National Center for Educational Statistics, Digest of Educational Statistics, 2001. Table 184. nationwide while only 35 to 55 percent of Appalachian high school students go directly into postsecondary education—a significant difference even at the higher end of the spectrum—the gap is growing. This trend is not likely to change without a strong regionwide intervention.

Table 1. Educational attainment levels in Appalachia and the nation in 2000
Percent of population with: Appalachian Region Nationwide
Less than a high school diploma 23.2 19.2
High school graduate or equivalent
(but no post secondary education)
35.8 28.6
Some college or higher
(includes 2-year, 4-year, and
graduate degrees)
41.0 51.8
Bachelor's degree or higher 17.7 24.4

(Data for Table 1 and Figure 2 were compiled by the Appalachian Regional Commission from U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, 2000 Census of Population and Housing, Demographic Profile, Table 2)

Levels of education are closely associated with several indicators of success in life. (From Dan Goldhaber and Dan Player, Analytical Framework for Assessing the Potential Return on a Federal Investment in the Alliance for Excellent Education's "Every Child a Graduate." and Duncan Chaplin, Public and Private Benefits of Education for At-Risk Youth and the Alliance for Excellent Education Framework. Higher levels of educational attainment are associated with better health, healthier children, longer life expectancies and higher salaries. Countries and regions with populations that have higher levels of education are clearly better positioned to develop economically, regardless of how the economy performs overall. Such areas will be able to attract higher levels of investment and jobs that pay higher salaries. They are likely to shrink more slowly in a recession and rise more quickly when the overall economy is strong. Likewise, countries and regions with populations that have lower levels of education are poorly positioned to develop economically. This has been the case in Appalachia. When the national and world economies have been robust, growth in the Region has been considerably slower than growth in the nation as a whole. When the national economy has been in a downturn, the economy of the Region has tended to sink farther and faster.

Figure 2. Educational Attainment in Appalachia and the Nation in 2000

Figure 2 is a graphical representation of the data provided in Table 1. Percent of population with less than a high school diploma: Appalachian Region: 23.2 percent; nationwide: 19.2 percent. Percent of population that are high school graduates or equivalent: Appalachian Region: 35.8 percent; Nationwide: 28.6 percent. Percent of population with some college or higher: Appalachian Region: 41 percent; nationwide: 51.8 percent. Percent of population with bachelor's degree or higher: Appalachian Region 17.7 percent; nationwide: 24.4 percent.