05/10/2012 11:43 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

Closing the Gap Between College Aspiration and Success

America is and always has been a nation of dreamers -- people who struck out from distant shores in search of a better life, people who yearned for freedom, people who imagined what's next and made it real. And for a hundred years the backbone of our uniquely American dream has been education.

In the second half of the 20th century, our nation's historic prosperity grew in the shadow of the GI Bill and an explosion in postsecondary degrees. Today close to 90 percent of young Americans plan to attend college. And recent unemployment data shows that college grads are three times as likely as high school drop-outs to hold a job.

However, many students still do not enroll in higher education and even fewer graduate. Of those students who do not enroll and graduate, many have the academic preparation to succeed, but don't have access to the proper information, guidance, or support.

This is a problem for all Americans, from Main Street to Wall Street.

If we do not close the gap between college aspiration and college success, we will not only face a long-term economic crisis, but we will also lose that intangible aura of opportunity and wonder that makes the United States a symbol of hope--not just to the world, but, more importantly, in the eyes of our own people.

One of the first things we can do is make the application process simpler, more transparent and more accessible. This is critically important for low-income and underrepresented students. If we can provide them early on with the "what, where, when and how" of college planning, we can demystify the process and show every student that they are college material.

A critical subset of this group is students whose parents have not attended college. The College Board's 2011 report, "One Year Out: Findings From A National Survey Among Members of the High School Graduating Class of 2010," found that while 71 percent of 2010 high school graduates whose parents both graduated from college relied on their families for college planning help, that figure dropped to 48 percent among students whose parents both did not graduate from college. These students face an inherited achievement gap that perpetuates a cycle where only certain (and too often wealthier) families pursue higher education and its spoils.

So the second thing we can do is provide every student with access to the best advice and the most complete college planning resources. Whether it comes from parents, peers or advisers, sound advice is essential to choosing the right path.

College is more accessible than many families might think. They often overestimate the cost of college and underestimate the amount of financial aid that they are eligible to receive.

There are many individuals and organizations eager to help students find a great school and help parents figure out how to pay for it. The College Board, for example, recently launched, a free online resource that will improve the college planning process for students and families by providing greater access to the guidance and information that all students need and deserve.

Finally, we need to empower educators with information and strategies to take a more active role in college planning. Ensuring that students' needs are met requires a complicated ballet between principals, teachers, school counselors and college admission officers. No stone can go unturned.

Ultimately, our goal is to have 55 percent of Americans holding a college degree by 2025. The College Board has played and will continue to play a big role in this effort. Working with our partners in government and the nonprofit world, I am more hopeful than ever that we will reach our goal and close the achievement gap once and for all.