Newswise — Higher education is awash with challenges. While young people today need college more than ever, college attendance across the country has dropped in each of the last nine years. This is happening at a time when almost all new well-paying jobs require postsecondary training and study. 

As enrollment declines threaten the survival of more than a third of our nation’s colleges, and as communities face economic decline because they’re short on college-educated workers, a solution lies within our grasp. 

Growing up in Polk County, Florida, Maria never considered becoming the first in her family to attend college. That changed in 10th grade when her math teacher, Mr. Lambert, took Maria and three classmates to visit a nearby state school.  “It opened up a new world for me,” said Maria. 

In grade 11, the complexity of the college admissions process threatened to derail Maria’s dream.  That’s when Mr. Lambert stepped in and showed her how to sign up for tests, fill out financial aid forms and move through the admissions maze.  “Mr. L badgered me about deadlines and supported me at every turn. I never could have done this alone,” said Maria, who graduated from University of Central Florida last spring. 

At schools across the U.S., millions of students, most from low-income households with limited college and career knowledge, sit on the bubble. They’re qualified for college but they don’t get the kind of college and career readiness support that Maria received from Mr. Lambert.   

Most of these bubble students never find a college and career readiness advisor to encourage and help them understand college terminology, test taking, paying for and applying to college. More often than not, formal education for these students ends before or after 12th grade, and they end up staying in their home communities making minimum wage.   

Those who don’t go to college earn, on average, half what their college educated peers will make. The impact also impedes local economies.   

Government and business leaders are recognizing the correlation between workforce needs and postsecondary attainment. Almost every state has set postsecondary and workforce readiness goals to strengthen their economies. Vermont, facing a shortfall of 132,000 job-ready workers over the next few years, is looking to increase the percentage of citizens with college degrees from 60 to 70 by 2025. California plans to help an additional 1.5 million residents attain college degrees by 2030.  

A recent University of Vermont study confirmed that 10 percent more students would attend college and attain degrees simply if they had an advisor who provided them information and encouragement.   

Our organization, CFES Brilliant Pathways, knows that for our most vulnerable children, that support can be hard to come by. While, on average, one school-based counselor serves 470 students, the metrics are much worse for low-income kids, where the counselor: student ratio is an appalling 1 to 900. 

That disturbing inequity plays out across our nation. Those children who need the most help get the least, while those from advantaged backgrounds get an abundance.  We saw that excess in the Varsity Blues admissions scandal where wealthy parents bribed officials to get their children into elite colleges.   

Support needs to be spread around, so that every young person has an advisor advocate to help them down the pathway to a brilliant future.   

CFES has an answer. Over the years we’ve helped 100,000 underserved students attain degrees, and we’ve repeatedly seen that kids on the bubble need support from outside the home to move down the college pathway.    

In a new program, we’re making sure much more of that support is available – by training and credentialing college and career readiness advisors to fill this national void. 

Last month, CFES awarded 20 College & Career Readiness Advisor Certificates to school teachers and staff, business partners and college administrators, following their participation in a daylong training workshop. These advisors will receive ongoing professional development through webinars and other digital resources. 

The college and career readiness advisor concept is simple and powerful.  We need to train and credential college, community and business personnel, as well as educators and staff in schools. All students should have an advisor who is helping them meet admission and financial aid deadlines, understand how to pay for college, complete applications, find internships and job shadowing opportunities and navigate the realm of college and career readiness challenges. Over the next two years CFES will train and credential 2,500 CCR advisors. 

It’s time to get to work. 

A shorter version of this op-ed appeared in the New England Journal of Higher Education