11/08/2012 03:14 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

Expanding Access to College -- And Jobs -- For America's Youth

Education is at the forefront of today's political debate. It is seen by many as a national priority to ensure America's dominant global power.

It is even more important when you consider that over this decade, jobs requiring education beyond a high school diploma will grow more rapidly than other jobs. Currently, more than half of the 30 fastest growing occupations, including healthcare, financial services and technology, require post-secondary education.

The truth of the matter is that we have a college attainment gap, as high school graduates from the wealthiest families in our nation are almost certain to continue on to higher education, while just over half of high school graduates in the poorest quarter of families attend college. And while more than half of college students graduate within six years, the completion rate for low-income students is only about 25 percent.

In Florida, for example, there is a program with a proven track record of success which has been helping to close the college attainment gap. Take Stock in Children is a role model program with a 17-year history of helping more than 18,000 deserving low-income students achieve their dreams of securing a college education and successfully enter the workforce. Its multi-year curriculum provides comprehensive services from middle school, through high school and into college.

Take Stock in Children has documented amazing results by mentoring students and making sure they graduate from high school, funding their college education and encouraging them to complete the circle by giving back as they have received. However, this is not an entitlement program. Each student must support their end of the bargain by meeting with a mentor once a week, maintaining good grades and remaining drug and crime-free to receive a scholarship.

Over the years, the organization has perfected a public/private partnership model in which the state matches every donation dollar for dollar. It's a win-win situation that reduces government dependency, strengthens families and builds stronger neighborhoods.

According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in October 2009, approximately 3 million 16 to 24-year-olds were not enrolled in high school and had not earned a high school diploma or an alternative credential. With an unparalleled high school graduation rate of 92 percent and 89 percent of its students enrolling in college, there is little doubt that Take Stock in Children's formula works and contributes to the economic viability of its communities.

In fact, there are studies that suggest that high school graduates contribute 46 percent more in taxes, have longer lives with less public health dependency and are three times more likely to be gainfully employed and not dependent on government assistance. The benefit to the State of Florida because of Take Stock in Children is estimated to be $300,000 per student over a lifetime.

The NCES also reports that in 2009, nine percent of 2007-2008 first-time bachelor's degree recipients were unemployed. We have to do better! Now is the time for education game changers, elected officials and the community to embrace the merits of a program like Take Stock in Children. It starts with all of us working together to make sure students have access to a quality education in order to be competitive and successful in the workforce.

Our children deserve the opportunity to obtain the knowledge and skills required for the careers of the future and live out the American dream. We must rally together and take pride in our youth who are the next generation of leaders.

It's time to put education first and ensure that we are doing everything in our power to once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Our economic competitiveness depends on it. America is home to some of the leading colleges and universities across the globe, and they should be filled with young minds ready and eager to take on the world.