The ZIP code where a child lives should not predict a child’s success.

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THE Puget Sound region produces jobs that are the envy of many parts of the nation. Yet the promise of these appealing, lucrative jobs feels hollow for too many low-income, underserved students, many of whom are students of color and are the first in their families to aspire to college.

While these students are capable of completing the four-year degrees that are so often the entrée of a middle-class life, they tend to be far less successful in starting and finishing college than their higher-income counterparts.

The challenge is worsening when you consider that about half of our public school students come from low-income families, where the idea of college is not part of the conversation. And even if they earn a degree, fewer of them benefit from the demand for graduates in science, math, engineering and technology because underserved students are less likely to graduate in those fields or to have the connections that help secure jobs.

It’s striking that by age 24, 79 percent of Americans born in the upper-income quartile hold college degrees, compared with just 11 percent of those born into the bottom quartile. And while just 6 percent of U.S. students hold high-in-demand degrees in science and engineering, the proportion of underrepresented minority 24-year-olds with such degrees is only about half that.

These disparities are an affront to our American sense of fairness, and they also threaten the economic well-being of the state and the nation. The U.S. is now second in the world for the proportion of adults 25 and older who hold four-year college degrees. Considering only young people ages 25 through 34, however, the U.S. drops to 11th. It’s estimated that, in Washington state alone, 25,000 high-skill science, math and engineering jobs are unfilled because there are not enough qualified applicants.

Yolanda Watson Spiva is president and CEO of the College Success Foundation, a nonprofit inspiring underserved, low-income youths to finish high school, graduate from college and succeed in life. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, is chair of President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
Yolanda Watson Spiva is president and CEO of the College Success Foundation, a nonprofit inspiring underserved, low-income youths to finish high school, graduate from college and succeed in life. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, is chair of President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

Other nations are racing to educate their young people to compete in a global economy just as the states in our country pull back on their efforts to keep college affordable and accessible in order to address rising costs and reduce pressure on taxpayers.

To graduate more students, we can draw on the lessons learned at organizations like the ones we lead: the College Success Foundation (CSF), based in Issaquah, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). We know, for example, that financial aid, while crucial, is not enough.

The CSF model is that students need an integrated system of supports and scholarships to succeed. We find that low-income, underserved students need academic, social, emotional and financial support. In middle school, we have career and college readiness coaches that help create early awareness for college. In high school, we have college preparatory advisers to ensure students are finishing high school college-ready. We familiarize them with the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), help them prepare for college entrance exams, help them consider which college might be a good fit for them and prepare them to navigate the transition to college.

Serving more than 12,000 middle- and high-school students per year in Seattle, Highline, Tacoma, Spokane, Yakima and the District of Columbia, CSF depends on networks of federal, state and community partners to provide services to students — and to reshape policies for broader student success. The state Legislature helps fund our programs and has been supportive of our results, allowing us to expand into additional schools within the state. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Costco and many other organizations and individuals support our efforts through scholarships and grants to fund operations.

In the 15 years since its founding, CSF has radically improved the college graduation rate for the low-income students it serves and has supported more than 6,000 college scholars on their paths to earning postsecondary degrees.

At UMBC, success for students has become a mantra. The way was paved by the university’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which for 25 years has prepared minority and other undergraduates with strong interests in science, technology and related fields for research careers in STEM. The program, a model for other initiatives on campus, provides substantial financial, academic and social support for students.

The ZIP code where a child lives should not predict a child’s success.

What we need nationally and in Washington state is the groundswell of commitment to the academic, financial and social supports that we know work and will give each child an equal opportunity to succeed. This commitment would help close the opportunity gap once and for all.