Last month, a young woman who grew up in a low-income household in rural Kentucky was accepted early decision to Harvard.

The following op-ed, written by CFES President & CEO Rick Dalton, appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal on January 14, 2017

Last month, a young woman who grew up in a low-income household in rural Kentucky was accepted early decision to Harvard.

Katie’s story is compelling. Her father left before she was born, and her mother passed away when she was just a toddler. When her grandmother died from breast cancer, Katie’s great-grandmother stepped up to raise her.

In the 35 years I’ve worked with students to help them achieve their dreams of higher education, I’ve seen hundreds of young people overcome seemingly insurmountable odds by drawing on resilience, grit and community support. But I’ve also learned that, counter to the American dream, too often success is determined by zip code rather than talent.

The truth is that the best students from low-income backgrounds are far less likely to pursue and ultimately attend our most selective colleges than their wealthier peers. At America’s 270 most selective public and private colleges, only 6 percent of the student population is from low-income households.

Already, low-income youth are 8 times less likely than their wealthier peers to attain a college degree. Sadly, this educational opportunity gap between rich and poor continues to widen annually.

Even those low-income children who beat the odds and enroll in college, unlike Katie, often wind up attending local institutions that are less selective than they qualify for. This phenomenon, called undermatching, comes with a cost to the students and society.

These local institutions typically have fewer resources, and that can mean elevated student loan debt and higher dropout rates. So not only are students who attend top-tier colleges more likely to graduate, they earn roughly 25 percent more over their lifetimes than those who attend less selective colleges.

The organization that I lead, CFES, aspires to have all of our young people earn postsecondary degrees. In fact, over the next decade, we plan to help one million young people from low-income rural and urban communities attain degrees, ready to contribute to the 21st-century workplace. Achieving this ambitious goal requires that we enlist dozens of corporate and higher education partners and that ultimately we help our students find the right match. For thousands of young people, that will mean a top-tier college.

Over the next 6 months, we plan to create a dozen strategic partnerships with public and private colleges and universities that graduate 75 percent or more of their students. These collegiate partners will help our students navigate the admissions and financial aid maze. Among other activities, they will offer financial aid workshops for students and families and opportunities for campus visits.

CFES introduced Katie and 18 other Kentucky youth to Harvard last fall, giving them a firsthand look at campus life. Like Katie, some of these students will ultimately enroll at our partner colleges, creating a win-win scenario where colleges build their base of Pell-eligible students, most of whom are from families with an annual income of less than $30,000. Additionally our partners will also help thousands more young people understand how to move down the college pathway.

Partnerships and initiatives like Governor Cuomo’s recently proposed plan that would waive tuition for New York State students at public universities can play a great role in expanding access to our students with the greatest need. Before they ever set foot on campus, though, our students need to participate in readiness activities that ensure they can thrive while there.

CFES centers on a cohesive set of core practices—Mentoring, Leadership Through Service, and Pathways to College and Career. Katie participated in these practices that raise aspirations, and develop grit, resilience, adaptability and other Essential Skills, ultimately helping students become college and career ready.

America needs college graduates today more than ever. The United States projects that 23 million new, high-paying jobs will go unfilled in the next decade because they require postsecondary training and credentials. This means that many of those jobs will move overseas and while our tax base weakens, we would be supporting a growing population of unemployed and underemployed citizens.

When we squander talent, all of us pay the price.

Although most CFES students attend non-selective public universities and community colleges where they are well served, others have gone on to graduate from places like Harvard, Middlebury, Williams, Vassar, Stamford, Northwestern, Naval Academy, College of William and Mary, and University of Vermont.

While Katie’s story is inspirational, it is our responsibility to ensure that it is not unique. There are other Katies who would do well at top tier colleges, where they will gain the footing to improve their lives and make lasting contributions to society.