11/06/2012 03:43 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2013

Education: The Business of our Future

This year, more than 19 million students enrolled in college. At the same time, the country continues to be plagued by dismal unemployment, economic uncertainty and poor graduation rates.

College today is not just a pathway to success; it's a pre-requisite to success. However, studies show that income level, race and ethnicity play a significant role in whether or not individuals will have access to college. Only about 50 percent of high school students from families making $20,000 and less will enroll in college. The gap widens with graduation rates, where three out of four Caucasian high school graduates will enroll in college next fall, compared to 56 percent of African-American high school graduates and 58 percent of Hispanic graduates. These enrollment and graduation rates negatively impact young people's futures and our communities. Fewer advanced degrees also take a toll on America's competitiveness and innovation.

While the national government plays an important role in advancing the U.S. education system, we cannot depend on our government to advance all education-related issues. For this reason, the private sector plays an increasingly critical role in collaborating to advance our education system, particularly helping students bridge the gap between high school and college. Bridging this postsecondary gap is not just an education issue -- it is also a business issue -- one that directly affects our ability to compete in the global marketplace, source talent and strengthen our economy.

Yet education at its core is a local issue, which is why companies such as Target, Starbucks and Darden Restaurants are working to address education issues at their root: in our communities. Working directly with local schools, meeting with civic leaders or partnering with nonprofits and other companies are just some of the ways the private sector can better understand how to help in a meaningful, impactful way.

Through our Recipe for Success program, we have partnered with several organizations to help students gain access to our nation's top colleges and universities. For example, our work with College Summit has helped more than 40,000 students in lower-income communities with their postsecondary plans. This is the first step in a lifelong journey of personal and professional economic empowerment.

I strongly believe that education is the biggest opportunity of all. It is incumbent upon all of us to provide our youth with the necessary tools to access two-and four-year colleges, culinary programs or technical schools to create opportunities for tomorrow's workforce and generations to come. This is our future and it is time we all contribute to nurture its growth.

Angela Woods is the director of the Darden Foundation & Community Affairs at Darden Restaurants, Inc., focusing on charitable corporate giving, employee volunteerism and diversity outreach. Darden has supported partners such as College Summit since 2008 as part of the company's Recipe for Success™ program.