In less than three years, 70 percent of the jobs in the state will require some postsecondary education; 33 percent will require a bachelor’s degree or more.

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MANY of today’s students overcome huge obstacles to reach college and succeed.

Consider Liam, whose father was incarcerated when he was 13; he and his sister cared for their mother, stricken with cancer, until she passed away. Liam persevered and is excelling as a freshman at Western Washington University. Or Jessy, who was abandoned by her parents, lived with various relatives and members of her church and worked her way to success at Western. And Mayra — the first member of her family to attend college and a participant in the Upward Bound program to support college readiness and the TRIO Student Success program at The Evergreen State College. She is solidly on her path to becoming a teacher and has also inspired her younger sister and brother to attend college.

For these students and others, access to a little extra support — academic advising, assistance navigating unfamiliar college systems, social support from staff and student mentors, and financial aid opportunities — can make all the difference.

The Seattle Times editorial board recently observed that Washington lawmakers have an opportunity to foster a world-class education in our state — preschool through college.

As presidents of two of our state’s public four-year higher education institutions, we support this goal. By 2020, 70 percent of the jobs in the state will require some postsecondary education; 33 percent will require a bachelor’s degree or more.

In today’s knowledge economy, the consequences of not having any postsecondary degree are significant, as reflected in gaps in income, household wealth, poverty rates, dependency on government assistance programs, and even health and longevity outcomes, between the haves and have-nots.

The consequences for the economic, political, and social vitality of our state and country are just as important.

According to an annual survey of the nation’s public-education systems, Washington ranked second to last when it came to narrowing the gap in performance between low- and high-income students — even though the state ranked 13th in overall K-12 achievement.

As a state, how can we fully compete when so many of our students are being left behind by the fast-moving 21st century economy?

The good news is increasing numbers of students attending our universities and colleges from lower-income families, which also are more ethnically and racially diverse.

Fully 90 percent of Evergreen’s 2016 graduates belonged to at least one group traditionally underrepresented in higher education: low-income, first-generation to complete a bachelor’s degree, students of color, veterans, nontraditional age and students with disabilities. And these students are already contributing to their communities.

Through the award-winning Compass 2 Campus program, Western students have spent 123,000 hours mentoring 9,000 kids in 31 low-income schools across Whatcom and Skagit counties, encouraging them to set their sights on college.

It’s not enough to just get students in the door. To remain competitive as a state, we must invest in proven strategies; strengthen pathways for historically underserved populations, transfer students, veterans, and adult learners; and fully fund the State Need Grant to permit more students to attend college and reduce the burden of student debt loads.

We must also address persistent bottlenecks for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) coursework to fill the significant needs in our state’s burgeoning technology sectors. By 2018, 70 percent of all STEM jobs in the state will require a bachelor’s degree or greater. And Washington ranks No. 3 in the nation in STEM job growth.

So, we urge the Legislature to fulfill the worthy goal to invest in a world-class education system, and to ensure that every child in our state can indeed have an education of the highest quality, K-16 and beyond.

The investments we make in Liam, Jessy, Mayra and others like them will yield a robust return, not just for the students, but for our communities, our state and our economy.