In the early 1990s, the State of Ohio recognized that K-12 students in its Appalachian region received academic labels that influenced whether or not they attended college. K-12 students who were designated as not "college material" lacked the appropriate encouragement or means to break out of poverty. Previous attempts to attract Appalachian students into higher education rarely extended into the communities but rather remained based at the individual college campuses. The Ohio Appalachia Center for Higher Education (OACHE) set out to increase college attendance, by creating a first-time convergence of local college staff and K-12 schools to administer modest grants for college preparation activities for all students.
The formation of the OACHE sprung from a study by Ohio University's Institute for Local Government Administration and Rural Development (ILGARD), which identified major barriers to post-high school education. The study called "Access and Success" found that debilitating cycles of poverty, exclusionary academic labels, families' inexperience with the college application process, and students' low self-esteem needed to be addressed simultaneously. The questions of how to financially accomplish this in a region where ten of twenty-nine counties were designated as being in severe economic need in the 2000 Census required administrative resourcefulness. In 1993, Ohio's House Bill 152 established the OACHE with an unlikely governing body of ten college presidents plus an Ohio Board of Regents Member.
Between 1993 and 2001, the OACHE funded 89 projects in 49 different Appalachian schools with "Access" grants. Typically, grantees first implemented projects by providing a crucial resource, such as transportation to local colleges for students. These schools increasingly developed comprehensive programs to provide college preparatory activities that lasted throughout middle and high school. Recent Access grant projects have involved more members of districts--from bus drivers to teachers to college counselors. While program activities vary according to the stated needs of the school, they all focus on establishing an attainable path to college and promoting general college attendance through a backbone of curriculum, teacher training, career planning, and information and training around financial aid applications.
The OACHE's commitment to this purpose has helped embed a region-wide mindset that college is within reach. An independent evaluator commissioned in 2000 found that college attendance increased in more than 77 percent of OACHE-involved schools. Before Newcomerstown High School began an OACHE-funded transportation program to area colleges, only 28 percent of the school's students sought higher education. In 2003, that figure rose to 64 percent. Additionally, an examination of school report cards for 16 schools found an increase in overall academic achievement, with a 16 percent average increase in the number of students passing state proficiency exams.
The effects of the OACHE on the regional college attendance rates have served as a model for the college preparatory activities of over seven states. With support from the Community Colleges of Appalachia, Inc., the first OACHE replication center was launched in 1998. By 2000, the Appalachian Regional Commission had created a grant program specifically to start more OACHE-like centers across the region. The OACHE currently administers complementary programs that include an Educational Opportunity Center that helps low-income, first-generation adult students enter or re-enter college and a partnership with a local community college to develop a college retention program. With region-wide, systematic support for college attendance, going to college is now a desirable and attainable goal for students in the Appalachian region of Ohio.