New initiative pushes kids toward college

COLUMBUS – A catchy new initiative, with a flashy Web site and eye-catching billboards that will say things like “diddly squat” or “nada, zip, zilch,” has got its sights set on the kids that Theresa King and Tamara Bergen once were.

King, now 62, opted long ago not to pursue college.

For her, the decision marked a rebellion from a severely structured childhood.

Bergen, 46, didn’t go because she was certain at age 18 that she wanted the picture-perfect existence of a wife and mother.

Each stood within sight of the Ohio Statehouse on Friday and expressed skepticism that the latest in a series of state efforts to get kids into college would have worked for them.

The newest initiative, called KnowHow2GOOhio, will spend $200,000 on radio, TV and interactive Internet advertising aimed at getting high schoolers to take advantage of Ohio’s elaborate network of college access programs and professionals.

Fliers and tips for students are going to give them advice like: “Be a pain (in a good way)” or “Push Yourself!” next to a picture of a teenager being pushed in a grocery cart.

Bergen said, although she understands the value of college now, such a program would have had little effect then.

“Nah,” she said. “Because my parents talked with me and lots of older adults did, but I was in love and I was getting married and having babies, and that was all I needed.”

King was the only one of her parents’ eight children not to pursue higher education.She didn’t face the “poverty of spirit” that Gov. Ted Strickland said is keeping many Ohioans out of college.

“The freedom was more of a priority to me at that time than education – although education was always emphasized in my home,” said the daughter of a police chief. “I was just a little bit rebellious.”

Strickland, a Democrat, clearly views himself as a poster child for college access. Born to a family of modest means in Appalachia, he is one of only two children among nine to go to college. He went on to become a psychologist, professor and Methodist minister.

One statistic that bothers him is that children of the richest quarter of Americans are nine times more likely to attend college than the children of the poorest quarter.

Reginald Wilkinson, president and chief executive of the Ohio College Access Network, has also touted his college success story. The state’s former prisons director under Republican Gov. Bob Taft, Wilkinson said during the KnowHow2GO launch that he might not have risen out of the urban poverty into which he was born without a college degree.

They joined many others at the KnowHow2GO event in sharing inspiring stories in which higher education changed a life that seemed headed toward a dead end.

But Ohio’s resistance to college education appears to be systemic.

Gov. Jim Rhodes, a Republican who led the state from 1963 to 1971 and again from 1975 to 1983, took a more literal approach to college access than Strickland and Wilkinson now take: He tried to build one every 30 miles.

Ohio had the first network of college access programs in the nation. The coalition Wilkinson now leads is in its eighth year, and the numbers are still bad.

One recent national ranking placed Ohio’s percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree – 22.9 percent – at 39th worst in the nation. The U.S. Census Bureau found in 2005 that the percentage was even worse: 21.1 percent of those over age 25.

The new approach – guided by the Lumina Foundation on Education, Ad Council and American Council on Education – aims to build connections rather than buildings, and to take the mystery out of the college entrance process.

Bergen thinks a certain number of students are always going to be like she was: Eager to get out of high school and move on with life.

King also questions whether she would have been open to the idea of college right away. As a girl who hadn’t been able to leave the yard, high school graduation was too much of a temptation to explore, she said.

But maybe 10 years later, says Bergen.

“After I had my baby, I had to go back to work when she was six months old,” she said. “She stayed with a baby sitter for 10 years. After that, I knew I wanted to go to college but I just could never get started.”

For King, even three months later might have worked.

“If they’d said, ‘Go ahead and sow your wild oats, but in three months talk to me because one day you’re going to want to settle down, you’re going to want to have a job that’s got some meaning to your life, instead of ‘high school graduate.'”