Ask the faculty of America's leading colleges and universities about students who inspire them, and inevitably they'll bring up individuals like Sheldon Ruby, a Franklin and Marshall sophomore from the rural town of Everett, Pa., with a 3.5 GPA, or Elysa Marchicelli, a senior with a 3.2 GPA pursuing a marketing degree from the University of Maryland, College Park, after attending community college.

Both are excellent students who enhance the learning of all their classmates. Both plan to go to graduate school and give back to our country. Both come from very modest economic means and are the first in their families to go to college.

And there's the rub. Today, there aren't nearly enough lower-income students like Sheldon and Elyse attending America's highest-performing colleges and universities. Less than 10 percent of young people whose families are in the lowest quartile of American incomes ever earn a college degree, compared with 85 percent of those in the top quartile. With the average lifetime earnings difference between high school and college graduates exceeding $1 million, America is re-creating the economic caste system our ancestors came here to escape. To make our country truly a land of opportunity, colleges must do a better job serving low-income and minority students.

Every sector of higher education has a role to play, including the country's highest-performing schools. But today, roughly 300 public and private institutions with the highest graduation rates - those above 70 percent over six years - are not doing enough to solve this problem. Collectively, only about two of 10 students at these schools come from the lower 50 percent of U.S. household incomes.

Part of the job is to get more of these students to apply to leading institutions. To do that, Bloomberg Philanthropies is investing in a partnership with the College Board, College Advising Corps, and others to build a new cadre of advisers who, over five years, will use technology to help as many as 125,000 more highly qualified low- and moderate-income students pursue college opportunities.

But getting students to apply to the top schools is not enough. We must increase seats and scholarships for these students at the top schools, many of which are public flagship institutions or wealthy privates. Toward that end, Bloomberg Philanthropies also is funding an Aspen Institute task force of public and private education leaders, on which we will serve, to develop recommendations for student aid, budgeting, and public policy strategies.

We know this can be done. Why?

First, because the stakes are high. Our nation's future strength depends on leaders drawn from the full American mosaic; unchecked, today's opportunity gap will translate into tomorrow's leadership gap. Resolving many critical issues - in areas as diverse as public health, sustainability, agricultural innovation, and regional economic development - requires well-educated leaders from every region of our country, from all communities and all zip codes.

Second, because the talent is there. The College Board, respected economists, and countless K-12 and college educators have documented that each year, tens of thousands of low- and moderate-income high school students with strong grades and test scores do not even apply to high-performing institutions for which they're qualified. Research shows that when lower-income students enroll at leading colleges, they graduate at the same high rates as their upper-income peers.

Third, because we can succeed. In recent years, several colleges have developed winning strategies. Vassar College has increased enrollment of students who qualify for federal Pell grants (those from the lowest-income backgrounds) to more than 20 percent without lowering admission standards. At the University of California, Berkeley, even as admission standards have increased, the share of students from low-income backgrounds has remained very high, at 30 percent.

The fact is, top colleges and universities too often see themselves as competitors. To meet this national need, we need to become collaborators in developing ideas to restructure costs and increase financial aid, whether those funds are raised through philanthropy, recovered through cost savings, realized from strategically increasing enrollment, or reallocated from other parts of our budgets. We also need to share promising practices about how to improve our own advising and build pipelines of well-prepared students from outstanding high schools and community colleges.

The task force also needs to consider how state and federal governments, the private sector, and philanthropy can focus policies and investments on ensuring that high-performing colleges and universities broaden access to the full range of talented students across our communities.

No single initiative can address everything America needs to do to ensure that all our young people are well prepared for the fast-changing, knowledge-powered world in which we work and live. Reversing this inequity requires that all 3,000 colleges and universities do a much better job of reaching out to and educating students the current system too often fails to serve. But, frankly, our highest-performing and high-prestige schools should be leading the way.

Daniel R. Porterfield is president of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. dporterf@fandm.edu
William "Brit" Kirwan is chancellor of the University System of Maryland. bkirwan@usmh.usmd.edu