11/05/2010 11:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Enlisting Armies of Compassion to Close the College Gap

A degree beyond high school has become the ladder of opportunity in America and a proven pathway out of poverty. More than 95 million jobs today are high-skill, high-wage, yet only 45 million Americans have the education and training to fill them. More than 100 million Americans are vying to fill the 61 million low-skill, low wage jobs as unemployment continues to soar. A college education is the key to unlocking more economic progress and help is on the way from a powerful sector in America -- faith-based institutions.

Help in closing the college gap is certainly needed. Every year, more than 90 percent of low-income teenagers say they plan to attend college, but only half do. Only 20 percent who enter a two-year institution graduate within three, and about four in 10 students who enroll in four-year institutions will receive their degree in six years. At these rates, America's companies will continue to look abroad for skilled workers.

Faith-based communities see the ill effects of the college gap. When individuals fail to graduate high school and college, they often remain in their communities without a job, are unable to raise their families, and are absent from the economic, social and civic lives of their neighborhoods. While the faith community is not the only sector that should be working to boost these passports our of poverty, local congregations and community-serving religious nonprofits often have comparative advantages over other institutions. They are committed to social justice. They are trusted within their communities. They have the power to transform the lives of those who are most in need. And they are homes to mentors and tutors and social networks that can help students achieve success.

Over the last year, we have witnessed stunning examples of local congregations and community-serving religious nonprofits across America providing pathways to post-secondary success for low-income students. These armies of compassion are doing so much -- creating the expectation that every child will finish college; opening up their social networks to give young people the information and supports they need to succeed; providing positive role models for students and issuing the educational equivalent of an altar call that puts the entire congregation behind them; providing academic tutoring for class subjects and state standardized tests; hosting financial aid and college awareness nights; providing opportunities to visit college campuses; and partnering with post-secondary institutions to secure admissions and financial aid packages.

Although the examples of how faith-based communities are engaging to help more students earn a degree beyond high school exist, they are insufficient to meet a growing need. More congregations and nonprofits need to be alerted to the powerful connection between a college education and social mobility.

Community colleges and four-year colleges and universities should look to the faith community as viable partners with common goals. Community institutions that advocate for low-income families and students should partner with congregations who are serving the very same constituents. As one pastor in Cincinnati told us, "Faith-based organizations are a sleeping giant in our city and our country -- we could rouse this sleeping giant to get more students into and graduating from college."

Faith-based institutions are found in every community in America and have the power to help foster a college-going culture in the very communities that need this cultural shift the most. Let's awaken this sleeping giant for the benefit of millions of children who deserve a chance at the American dream.

John M. Bridgeland and Laura A. Moore. are co-authors with John J. DiIulio, Jr. of a report commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and released this week at the GESU School in Philadelphia. Closing the College Gap: A Guidebook For the Faith Community can be found at