The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 25, 2008

County fails to make higher-education grade

higher education, Ashtabula County is at the bottom of the class., Census Bureau, high school diploma

By CARL E. FEATHER - Lifestyle Editor - cfeather@starbeacon.com

When it comes to higher education, Ashtabula County is at the bottom of the class.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 12.3 percent of the county’s residents 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Nationwide, the rate is 27.3 percent. Just across the county line, in Lake County, the rate 22.7 percent.

The county’s percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree is even lower than the state average for West Virginia, which comes in dead last nationally.

“It seems pretty pervasive in our community that young people just don’t aspire to higher education,” says Susan Stocker, dean of Kent State University-Ashtabula campus.

The relationship between higher education and higher pay is well proven. According to Census Bureau data, workers 18 and older with bachelor degrees earn an average of $51,206 annually; those with only a high school diploma earn $27,915. Those with advanced degrees pull down $74,602. A worker without a high school diploma averages only $18,734.

In Ashtabula County, roughly 20 percent of the population lacks a high school diploma, about the same as the national percentage.

It would be easy to shift all of the blame for the county’s poor per capita and household-income standings on the educational level alone. However, if jobs that require college degrees don’t exist in the county and an individual is unwilling to assume the expense involved in commuting to jobs that do require a degree, there’s not much incentive for college-educated individuals to locate here.

“It’s the chicken or the egg,” says Mary Zappitelli, Conneaut Area City Schools’ superintendent.

Edgewood Senior High School guidance counselor Gary Himes points out that a college graduate wants to get on with life after making an investment of four years and tens of thousands of dollars.

“People cannot go out and get an education and them come back home and wait for a job to open up,” he says.

Indeed, the county’s low rate of college-degreed residents hints at a brain drain: an exodus of the county’s brightest students who either don’t want to or can’t return here to earn a living once they’ve received a degree.

“There is no place for them to work,” says Ashtabula Area City Schools’ Superintendent Joseph Donatone. “There are not enough jobs that require a bachelor’s or advanced degree.”

Himes says exit surveys done with the senior class each year suggest 45 to 55 percent of the students plan to get a four-year degree and another 15 percent a two-year degree or technical school certificate. Although the school does not track where the students end up, anecdotally, Himes feels most don’t return to Ashtabula County, at least not right away.

“I would imagine the vast majority of our students, when they go away to college to earn a four-year degree, probably do not return here. The only ones that might are those who go into medical or education jobs.”



Inside-out thinking

Kimberly Landis sees another side of the issue: a pervasive attitude that doesn’t recognize the value of post-high school education. Landis, executive director of ACCESS (Ashtabula County Continued Education Support Services), preaches a gospel of higher education to students and their families at all grade levels.

Gone are the days, says Landis, when a high-school graduate could hire on at one of the chemical plants or factories in Ashtabula County, make a living wage and stay here until retirement. However, many parents and grandparents were able to do that, and they expect as much for their children.

“Forty years ago, a high school degree was good enough,” Stocker says. “But that’s not good enough anymore. It’s trying to convince the parents and the children they need to get a college education.”

This attitude creates an atmosphere of unpreparedness. If parents never have gone to college, they have no idea how much it costs or how to plan for that expense, which catches them totally off guard when their high school-age students decide they want to continue their education. They also don’t know how to navigate the paperwork involved in applying to colleges or what to expect on campus, Landis says.

She estimates that about 75 percent of the students in Ashtabula County would be first-generation college students. To help this population access higher education, ACCESS counselors work in every high school. In addition, Conneaut Area City Schools has a Gear Up college preparation program in the sixth grade. Zappitelli says the district is the only one in the county to have the program, which encourages kids to reverse their thinking about higher education.

“The philosophy is that everybody is going to college and you opt not to,” Zappitelli says. “It’s inside-out thinking.”

“It’s creating a college-going culture,” says Landis, who oversees the ACCESS Advisory Program.

Students receive assistance in setting career goals, defining courses needed to get into higher education, finding financing and facing down other obstacles, such as not being socially prepared for campus life or dealing with parental concern that a child will leave the area and never return after college.

Landis also has begun to work with Growth Partnership (GP) for Ashtabula County to survey area industries to determine what kinds of degrees will be needed by applicants aspiring to return to the county after college. Landis says among those surveyed thus far, engineering degrees are mentioned most often. Majors in science, math and business are also listed.

Joseph Mayernick, executive director of GP, says his group is working with area manufacturers to set up internships. He feels there are many opportunities for college graduates to put their skills to work in the county. Mayernick says many local employers go outside the county to recruit engineering and other top positions, despite the concept of a local brain drain.

“It’s here, if they look for it,” he says. In addition, Mayernick says Ashtabula County’s workforce is aging and there will be a deficit of qualified workers in the near future.

Michael Sawruk, who heads up human resources at Millennium Inorganic Chemicals (Cristal) in Ashtabula Township, says their aging workforce is a concern.

“Over the next five years, we will probably need 50 to 60 plant operators because of retirements,” he says.

He says they’ll look at hundreds of resumes and applications in the process of filling just one position. The jobs are highly sought, paying more than $20 an hour once the worker is qualified for the post, and in the range of $25 an hour for skilled positions. Most of these positions do not require a college degree, but workers must have strong mechanical skills and or/ industrial experience and training.

Finding engineers is even more challenging. “Probably in the last year, we’ve hired six or seven engineers,” says Sawruk. “There are a lot of openings in Ashtabula for people who have that type of degree.”

Sawruk says the plant occasionally gets lucky and finds an engineer already in the county, but it often must go outside the region or state to locate the right candidate.

“For certain specific jobs, some of the engineering disciplines are very tough to fill,” he says.



Good prospects

Arnold J. Clebone, Ohio Department of Development director for Region XII, says businesses do consider the skill level of the area’s workforce when they survey an area for development.

“Most of the concerns are ‘Do you have a workforce or money to train them or programs in schools?’” he says. Even that can be a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, with the old “if you build it, they will come” factor at work. A few years ago, the community was not flush with prison guards, but a prison was built in Conneaut, just the same.

Stocker says KSUA provides training appropriate to job opportunities already existing in the county. About 25 percent of the Kent branch’s students are enrolled in nursing, radiology or physical-therapy-assistant programs. Job opportunities for the graduates are found throughout the region.

“These graduates start out making $20 an hour,” she says. “The majority of graduates in nursing and physical-therapy-assistant programs have jobs already.”

The branch also offers a hospitality management degree, a good fit with the county’s growing tourism industry, and a criminal-justice studies degree, to match the prison industry. On the other hand, the branch dropped its elementary-education bachelor’s program because of poor job opportunities. Most every district in the county has cut teaching staffs and increased classroom sizes in response to rising expenses and decreasing appropriations and student enrollment.

Stocker says one of the things she has observed among the young-adult student population, particularly males, is a lack of career goals, even as they write the check for higher education.

“They come here because it’s the thing to do, but they are often undecided in terms of their major,” Stocker says. “They get here and realize they are required to do college-level work.”

Sixty-five percent of the KSUA student population, which has been steadily increasing every year, is female. The average age is 28. Stocker says students often have a job, children or other family responsibilities but somehow manage to find time to further their education and improve future prospects.

“It’s amazing what people will go through to get a degree, the amount of sacrifice they will make,” she says.

Edgewood Senior High School guidance counselor Gary Himes points out that a college graduate wants to get on with life after making an investment of four years and tens of thousands of dollars.

“People cannot go out and get an education and them come back home and wait for a job to open up,” he says.

Indeed, the county’s low rate of college-degreed residents hints at a brain drain: an exodus of the county’s brightest students who either don’t want to or can’t return here to earn a living once they’ve received a degree.

“There is no place for them to work,” says Ashtabula Area City Schools’ Superintendent Joseph Donatone. “There are not enough jobs that require a bachelor’s or advanced degree.”

Himes says exit surveys done with the senior class each year suggest 45 to 55 percent of the students plan to get a four-year degree and another 15 percent a two-year degree or technical school certificate. Although the school does not track where the students end up, anecdotally, Himes feels most don’t return to Ashtabula County, at least not right away.

“I would imagine the vast majority of our students, when they go away to college to earn a four-year degree, probably do not return here. The only ones that might are those who go into medical or education jobs.”



Inside-out thinking

Kimberly Landis sees another side of the issue: a pervasive attitude that doesn’t recognize the value of post-high school education. Landis, executive director of ACCESS (Ashtabula County Continued Education Support Services), preaches a gospel of higher education to students and their families at all grade levels.

Gone are the days, says Landis, when a high-school graduate could hire on at one of the chemical plants or factories in Ashtabula County, make a living wage and stay here until retirement. However, many parents and grandparents were able to do that, and they expect as much for their children.

“Forty years ago, a high school degree was good enough,” Stocker says. “But that’s not good enough anymore. It’s trying to convince the parents and the children they need to get a college education.”

This attitude creates an atmosphere of unpreparedness. If parents never have gone to college, they have no idea how much it costs or how to plan for that expense, which catches them totally off guard when their high school-age students decide they want to continue their education. They also don’t know how to navigate the paperwork involved in applying to colleges or what to expect on campus, Landis says.

She estimates that about 75 percent of the students in Ashtabula County would be first-generation college students. To help this population access higher education, ACCESS counselors work in every high school. In addition, Conneaut Area City Schools has a Gear Up college preparation program in the sixth grade. Zappitelli says the district is the only one in the county to have the program, which encourages kids to reverse their thinking about higher education.

“The philosophy is that everybody is going to college and you opt not to,” Zappitelli says. “It’s inside-out thinking.”

“It’s creating a college-going culture,” says Landis, who oversees the ACCESS Advisory Program.

Students receive assistance in setting career goals, defining courses needed to get into higher education, finding financing and facing down other obstacles, such as not being socially prepared for campus life or dealing with parental concern that a child will leave the area and never return after college.

Landis also has begun to work with Growth Partnership (GP) for Ashtabula County to survey area industries to determine what kinds of degrees will be needed by applicants aspiring to return to the county after college. Landis says among those surveyed thus far, engineering degrees are mentioned most often. Majors in science, math and business are also listed.

Joseph Mayernick, executive director of GP, says his group is working with area manufacturers to set up internships. He feels there are many opportunities for college graduates to put their skills to work in the county. Mayernick says many local employers go outside the county to recruit engineering and other top positions, despite the concept of a local brain drain.

“It’s here, if they look for it,” he says. In addition, Mayernick says Ashtabula County’s workforce is aging and there will be a deficit of qualified workers in the near future.

Michael Sawruk, who heads up human resources at Millennium Inorganic Chemicals (Cristal) in Ashtabula Township, says their aging workforce is a concern.

“Over the next five years, we will probably need 50 to 60 plant operators because of retirements,” he says.

He says they’ll look at hundreds of resumes and applications in the process of filling just one position. The jobs are highly sought, paying more than $20 an hour once the worker is qualified for the post, and in the range of $25 an hour for skilled positions. Most of these positions do not require a college degree, but workers must have strong mechanical skills and or/ industrial experience and training.

Finding engineers is even more challenging. “Probably in the last year, we’ve hired six or seven engineers,” says Sawruk. “There are a lot of openings in Ashtabula for people who have that type of degree.”

Sawruk says the plant occasionally gets lucky and finds an engineer already in the county, but it often must go outside the region or state to locate the right candidate.

“For certain specific jobs, some of the engineering disciplines are very tough to fill,” he says.



Good prospects

Arnold J. Clebone, Ohio Department of Development director for Region XII, says businesses do consider the skill level of the area’s workforce when they survey an area for development.

“Most of the concerns are ‘Do you have a workforce or money to train them or programs in schools?’” he says. Even that can be a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, with the old “if you build it, they will come” factor at work. A few years ago, the community was not flush with prison guards, but a prison was built in Conneaut, just the same.

Stocker says KSUA provides training appropriate to job opportunities already existing in the county. About 25 percent of the Kent branch’s students are enrolled in nursing, radiology or physical-therapy-assistant programs. Job opportunities for the graduates are found throughout the region.

“These graduates start out making $20 an hour,” she says. “The majority of graduates in nursing and physical-therapy-assistant programs have jobs already.”

The branch also offers a hospitality management degree, a good fit with the county’s growing tourism industry, and a criminal-justice studies degree, to match the prison industry. On the other hand, the branch dropped its elementary-education bachelor’s program because of poor job opportunities. Most every district in the county has cut teaching staffs and increased classroom sizes in response to rising expenses and decreasing appropriations and student enrollment.

Stocker says one of the things she has observed among the young-adult student population, particularly males, is a lack of career goals, even as they write the check for higher education.

“They come here because it’s the thing to do, but they are often undecided in terms of their major,” Stocker says. “They get here and realize they are required to do college-level work.”

Sixty-five percent of the KSUA student population, which has been steadily increasing every year, is female. The average age is 28. Stocker says students often have a job, children or other family responsibilities but somehow manage to find time to further their education and improve future prospects.

“It’s amazing what people will go through to get a degree, the amount of sacrifice they will make,” she says.