In Kathryn Brown's family, college was never discussed. So when she heard that 98 percent of students from her private high school would go on to college, she thought to herself: "Well, I guess I'm in that 2 percent."
"No one in my family had gone to college, so it was never really talked about," said Brown, 27, who is Hispanic.
She eventually did go to college and is just two semesters away from finishing her degree in international studies at Wright State University. But she is in the minority: Only about 23 percent of Hispanic Ohio adults have a college degree -- the least of any population group, according to the Lumina Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to higher education.
In the coming years, more students of color than ever will be applying for college and entering the workforce -- increasing pressure on schools to educate students they have traditionally not served well, according to an annual report on admission trends, "Knocking at the College Door," which was released this month.
By 2020, 45 percent of U.S. students graduating from high school -- and potentially entering college -- will be non-white, according to the report.
Ohio will need more success stories like Brown's to reach its goal to create a more highly-trained workforce that is competitive enough to attract new businesses by getting degrees into the hands of more of its residents.
"Large equity gaps around college success for people of color is a real issue," said James Applegate, vice president of the Lumina Foundation. "That's got to drive the conversation. If you really want to drive the conversation on a concrete basis, just look at your numbers and what kind of workforce employers need."
Ohio's Hispanic and Asian populations are increasing rapidly in the state's colleges, while the numbers will drop for both white students (by 9 percent) and black students (22 percent) by 2020, the admissions report projects.
Although educating more minority students is not Ohio's only challenge -- the state's rural students are also undereducated, Applegate said -- it is an area where Ohio must make gains. An estimated 57 percent of new jobs that will be open through 2018 will require a college degree, and only about 36 percent of working-age Ohioans have that education, according to the Lumina Foundation.
Applegate noted that 80 percent of young people who earn bachelor's degrees come from high-income families while just 11 percent come from the lowest income quartile.
Ciara Black came from one of those low-income quartiles. Black, 26, grew up in a poor neighborhood in Columbus. She met her father only once, and her mother did not attend college, although she prepared her for college by enrolling her in alternative Columbus schools.
"I didn't know what college looked like," said Black, now a graduate student at Wright State. "I didn't have anyone before me to tell me, 'Hey, you should take these classes.' Or how to make friends. Or how to go about immersing yourself in college traditions. It was character building for sure, but it was still kind of difficult when you saw other people's parents coming for family weekend or you being the last person to leave your room because you have to think about how you're going to get home."
Black will graduate from Wright State in April after earning her undergraduate degree from Ohio State with a double major in political science and African-American studies. As she launches a career in higher education, she said she hopes to be a voice for underrepresented students and serve as a mentor.
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