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.
"Take opportunities that you're presented, even though you may not know if you can do it," she said. "Because you never know who is holding that door open for you and who is ready to open the next door down the hall, and the next door and the next door.
"You never know unless you try."
'A long way to go'
Local colleges and universities are stepping up recruiting efforts and adding services for underrepresented students.
This school year, Miami University hired a full-time urban recruiter to focus exclusively on Ohio's urban cores "to really begin to debunk that perception that a Miami education is out of reach," said Michael Kabbaz, associate vice president for enrollment management.
"We have a long way to go on our diversity efforts, but we've made progress," Kabbaz said. "If we don't build an environment by which we have diverse conversations in the classroom, then we're really doing our students a disservice."
Clark State Community College this fall will launch a new mentor program, and has 100 percent commitment from black male students on campus to participate as mentors, said Corey Holliday, director of admissions.
Sinclair has an Urban African American Mentor Program, Wittenberg University has a Connectors mentoring program to help students academically and socially adjust to college life, and the University of Dayton has a mentor program pairing multicultural freshmen and upperclassmen called PEERS.
Tiara Jackson, a black UD freshman from Rochester, N.Y., said her mentor, Miracle Reason, a sophomore from Dayton, helped her feel more comfortable on a campus that has a minority student body of 8 percent.
"It is kind of intimidating coming to a school where its majority people who don't look like you," said Jackson, 19. "Sometimes you don't know if you'll be able to relate."
To help students relate, UD's Office of Multicultural Affairs provides success specialists, study tables and a new mentoring program with faculty and staff, said director Patty Alvarez.
Small schools, like Urbana University, can sometimes make students feel more at home because of their size.
"The joy of being as small as Urbana is we get to have those one-on-one interactions with all of our students," said Mitch Joseph, director of campus life at the school, which has 1,332 students. "What we really try to foster is that family atmosphere."
Central State University, one of the area's two historically black universities, enrolls the highest rate of students from Ohio's urban, high-poverty schools than any public institution in the state.
Dean Phyllis Jeffers-Coly, said Central State serves a critical role in getting minority students into and through college.
"We do provide the supports for students who may need academic supports," she said.
Brown could have quit many times along the way.
She graduated from Chaminade Julienne High School in 2003 and has maintained a full-time job since then. She scraped up enough money to take college courses at night while still working during the day.
Most nights she is in class until 9 p.m.
Brown admits the schedule is tiring but she tries to "look at the bigger picture." She said she is motivated to finish her degree by the Latino Dayton high school students she volunteers to mentor through the League of United Latin American Citizens.
"I see these kids and I see so much potential in them" she said. "Because we're the fastest growing minority population, I feel like people need to take a look at that and respect that. And we have to come up and succeed and do better than our parents." --
Degree attainment for working-age Ohioans by ethnicity group
White: 36.4 percent
Black: 24.13 percent
Hispanic: 22.58 percent
Asian: 69.28 percent
Native American: 29.58
Source: Lumina Foundation
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