New college not necessary, report says

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 31, 2005

A dangerous enemy stalks Lawrence Countians, infiltrating all aspects of southern Ohio culture, affecting both young and old.

With no physical form, the enemy cannot be vanquished with conventional weapons. Studies, analysis and data have been gathered to help leaders fight this battle, ensuring that Lawrence County is not unarmed in its quest.

What is the enemy? A lack of higher education attainment. How do you fight it? With an education alliance spanning all sectors of the community that is all working toward a common goal.

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Is this an over-dramatized description of the educational problems facing Lawrence County? Local and state education officials don't think so as most believe the problem is all too real and just as deadly as any physical enemy.

Lawrence Countians are falling behind the rest of the Tri-State, and the rest of the state, in terms of degree attainment.

Now, a new 41-page report by consultants hired by the Ohio Board of Regents, the state body that oversees all aspects of higher education, says that the answer is not in creating a community college but in developing partnerships and building on what is already in place.

"We are going to be studying this report thoroughly here internally," said Michael Taggart, director of workforce development for the board of regents. "We believe that this can be a catalyst, a springboard that will lead to new ways of working together. And the consultants said they found the institutions are very open to working together in new ways."

From the beginning

The issue began last year when one of those institutions, Collins Career Center, saw "the enemy." Officials with the county's vocational school believed that college accessibility in Lawrence County had to be improved to keep pace with the Tri-State.

Through the state legislature, Collins Career Center began seeking to evolve the campus into a community college that would have more offerings and more opportunities. Many local and state school and government leaders supported this plan and a study commissioned by Collins Career Center backed it up.

"This study actually went much deeper, much farther than our research," Collins Superintendent Steve Dodgion said at the time. "What was shocking to me was that compared to the counties on the other side of the river, we aren't doing well."

On a state level, only 11 percent of Lawrence County residents achieve an associate or bachelor's degree compared to 48 percent of all Ohio residents.

Locally, Boyd County, Ky., and Cabell County, W.Va., report higher levels of degree attainment. For associate's degrees, Boyd shows 6.3 percent, Cabell 4.9 percent and Lawrence at 4.5 percent. For bachelor's degree's, Boyd is at 8.1 percent, Cabell at 12.1 percent and Lawrence at 6.4.

One point of debate about the community college plan has always been whether or not the designation change would have a negative effect on Ohio University Southern.

"From the beginning I said the community college proposal that called for the establishment of a new institution would have long-term consequences and future implications for higher education in Lawrence County," Dr. Dan Evans, dean of OUS, said Friday. "I felt that not all of them would be positive for Ohio University."

Ohio Sen. John Carey Jr. agreed with Evans and wanted to get the board of regents involved. So began a 3-month study by Vicki L. Melvin and Dr. David H. Ponitz, two independent consultants with decades of experience in all levels of education.

Looking for answers

Armed with notebooks and pencils, the consultants visited Lawrence County and the Tri-State numerous times to tour facilities and talk with education leaders in all three states. Much of the study is based on interviews with these individuals but it also drew upon demographics, school data and past reports.

When the numbers were crunched and all angles exhausted, the consultants came up with two main conclusions: Yes, Lawrence County does have an underserved population in need of more opportunities in higher education. However, enough programs exist already so the focus should not be in creating a community college but more on increasing awareness and building partnerships.

"(The consultants) felt the time was right to go beyond just conversations and work together in structuring ways to identify the needs of the community and build an alliance to meet those needs," Taggart said.

The report made three recommendations: Expand and improve the county's tech prep programs, develop an educational alliance and continue to work with the Ohio Board of Regents.

The alliance concept has educators intrigued and excited but would go beyond the institutions and include economic development and business leaders. The consultants offered several tips on which to start focusing.

Suggestions include identifying education and training needs, publicizing the opportunities available, build on reciprocal tuition agreements, develop more secondary and higher education pathways and work closely on transfer agreements.

The report will be reviewed by the board of regents staff, compared with other data, local feedback and existing studies. The staff will then make a formal recommendation to the board in September.

Weighing in

Feedback has already begun rolling in. Leaders from OUS and Collins Career Center agree that the study made some good points and will help them focus on the weaknesses of their respective institutions.

Evans said he had only reviewed it himself and had not discussed it with Ohio University officials in Athens, so his views only represented himself and not the entire university.

"The study has pointed out some shortcomings in our institution. We knew we could not be all things to all people," Evans said. "This study will help us begin to focus more on the pressing needs of the community so we can put more resource into those areas and address some of these issues.

"Clearly, we can all do a better job of working together to meet those needs. We are very open and very interested in creating stronger partnerships, stronger alliances with post-secondary education, which includes Collins Career Center, to meet Lawrence County's needs."

Calling this "the opportunity to try and do something unique," Evans said that Collins Career Center's interest in the issue has been very positive because it helped place Lawrence County under a microscope and ultimately that "Lawrence Countians will be the winners."

For Dodgion, the study had strengths and flaws, one of which that it was mostly interview-based and very subjective. It did, however, strengthen his resolve that Lawrence County has needs that his institution can meet.

"My first question to the consultants was, 'Is there a need?'" They said, 'Oh, yes, there is a need,'" Dodgion said.

"So I think we have established that there is a need. The consultants just think there are things we need to do to bring ourselves up to community college status."

Agreeing room to improve exists, Dodgion said he believes the institution is not far from where it needs to be. He said school administrators will work with the board of regents and legislators to determine the next step.

"We are not in anyway discouraged from our goal and that is to bring a community college to Lawrence County," he said.

Dodgion said he supports any type of partnerships that can be developed now and for generations to come.

So, the enemy - education deficiencies - has been found. But the battle has only begun.