By Katie Ronske
Appalachian Ohio is gaining ground in educational attainment, but much work remains to be done, according to a study by the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University.
This year's study found an increase in the college-going rate of recent high school graduates since 1992. The study placed the college-going rate of Appalachian Ohioans in 2006 at 51 percent, up considerably from the 1992 estimate of between 31 percent to 43 percent. Associate Professor of Leadership and Public Affairs Anirudh V.S. Ruhil believes that preparedness is key to the improvement.
"In large part this is because of the efforts of Ohio Appalachian Center for Higher Education, Ohio College Access Network, Ohio College Tech Prep, the Ohio Board of Regents, the Ohio Department of Education, local school districts, and other organizations that have tried to better prepare high school students for college," Ruhil said. "Not only in terms of academic preparedness but also in terms of helping the youth recognize that a post-secondary education is key to employment opportunities these days."
The Voinovich School, with assistance from Ohio University's Center for Higher Education, completed the two-year research effort this spring examining post-secondary education access and completion for students from Appalachian Ohio. According to Marsha S. Lewis, lead investigator on the study and an assistant professor of leadership and public affairs, the new numbers update the 1992 Appalachian Access and Success study that served as the catalyst for creation of the OACHE. Lewis stressed that the study looked at all forms of post-secondary education, including students seeking two-year technical degrees and post-secondary certificates.
"This important follow-up to the 1992 Access and Success Study provides information on the inroads that have been made and the barriers that must still be addressed regarding access education beyond high school for students in this part of the state," Lewis said.
Researchers conducted surveys of Appalachian high-school seniors, parents, guidance counselors and recent college graduates, as well as analyzing numerous secondary data sources. The research collected enabled examination of college and career aspirations, preparations and decisions of Appalachian students, as well as the barriers they face related to college access and success.
Researchers found that participation in some kind of program in high school that prepares students for college increases the likelihood that students will attend college right after graduation. Such programs also significantly narrow the education gap between first-generation college students and students with a parent who has attended college.
In other findings, data from the Ohio Board of Regents show that a student's persistence rate in working toward a bachelor's degree is lower for Appalachian Ohio students than for their non-Appalachian counterparts. However, when it comes to associate degrees, the persistence rate is often equal or slightly higher for Appalachian Ohio students.
Based on the survey responses and secondary data sources, it appears that Appalachian Ohio students are increasingly seeking degrees in fields that support the state's current and emerging growth sectors -- especially in medical, allied health, and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers.
"Ohio has dedicated some $200 million (over two years) to develop a diverse STEM portfolio in the K-20 education pipeline," Ruhil said. "While the benefits of these efforts will pay off in the near future, you are seeing current graduates flock to STEM or allied health sectors because that is where the job opportunities are at present."
Financial burdens and lack of knowledge regarding financial aid opportunities are a growing concern for college hopefuls in Ohio's Appalachian counties.
An increased number of high school seniors ranked lack of finances as their biggest obstacle in attending college in the 2008 study, compared with the 1992 study.
At Ohio University, Appalachian high school seniors are encouraged to apply for the Appalachian Scholars Award Program, a four-year renewable, need-based award valued at $10,000 each year. Reserved for students from the Appalachian region interested in pursuing a four-year degree at Ohio University, the scholarship includes an annual book stipend and participation in success-building programs.
The Access and Success-Appalachian Ohio study was conducted in partnership with the OACHE, the Ohio Board of Regents, the Ohio Department of Education's Ohio College Tech Prep Program and the Ohio College Access Network. The findings of the study have been released in a series of five reports, which are available for download on both the OACHE Web site (www.oache.org/downloads) and the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs Web site (www.voinovichschool.ohio.edu).