Our presidential candidates have focused much needed attention on the dramatically increased cost of college and President Obama has proposed adding $60 billion to the U.S. federal budget to make community college free for low-income students. Clearly, the affordability of higher education has become a critical issue for America’s economy because young people must be able to prepare for meaningful and financially rewarding careers. This crisis affects us all in the form of slowed economic growth, societal instability and increased taxpayer burdens for social welfare programs.

Young people entering the workforce with only a high school diploma (or less) likely will spend their lives stuck in low-wage jobs. But after attaining at least a two-year college degree, their opportunities for middle-income employment and a middle-class lifestyle increase dramatically. More graduates with higher skills and higher-wage jobs will close America’s skills gap, energize our global competitiveness and support our social infrastructure with their tax dollars.

Unfortunately, skyrocketing college tuition, ballooning student loan interest rates and the decreasing availability of federal grants have hit middle- and low-income students hard. Middle-income students increasingly find themselves saddled with life-altering loan debt that delays or destroys their chances to buy homes or have families. And students from low-income households who are affected by grant and loan program reductions may have no chance to attend college at all.

As grim as the financial picture can be, it’s actually college readiness – not affordability – that’s even more important to the national interest. Lowered student loan interest rates and expanded work study and Pell Grant availability will help students pay for college. But if our investment fails to prepare students for college-level work, college degree completion and workforce viability, such unproductive programs will only generate a backlash against efforts to make higher education more affordable.

Let’s look at the facts. Toward the end of the 20th Century, educators were pressured to increase high school completion rates. But high school completion is not the same as college preparation – especially for young people from low-income households. Between 1970 and 2014, the college degree completion rate of 24-year olds from low-income families rose from a paltry six percent to only nine percent. And when low-income students pay college tuition and then drop out, those who can least afford it walk away degree-less and in debt.

But by marrying college affordability with college and career readiness through public-private partnerships, we can blaze pathways to success for our young people. The P-TECH network of schools is already making meaningful progress toward this goal after only five years. With 60 locations across six states open by this fall, the innovative grades 9 to 14 program provides graduates with a high school diploma, a no-cost associate degree in technology, mentoring, workplace learning, paid internships and first-in-line consideration for available jobs with partnering companies. The first group of graduates in Brooklyn finished its “six-year” program 18 to 24 months ahead of schedule, and achieved a 100 percent success rate for skilled, high-wage employment and college scholarships.

Like all schools in the network, Brooklyn P-TECH is an open-admissions (no testing) public school. And like most schools in the network, the first P-TECH serves a predominantly low-income, non-white population. With help from dedicated faculty, industry mentors and paid internships, these young people are highly engaged and seizing opportunities for success.

After visiting P-TECH, Obama set aside funding for similar programs around the country. But these funds, along with the more than $1 billion allocated for Career and Technical Education (CTE) under the Carl D. Perkins Act, must be used intelligently if we are to turn things around. Following the P-TECH example, CTE must be linked to jobs in growth industries and the latest Labor Department data to ensure that we spend our academic and career training dollars wisely. CTE programs must connect high school to college, engage industry, integrate experiential learning and help graduates emerge career ready.

High college costs and staggering student loan debt are critical challenges for our society. But the story behind the headlines is even more important. Preparing students to succeed in college and complete their degrees is our national responsibility. Through partnerships between educators and employers that focus on academic rigor and economic relevance, we can strengthen America’s economy while giving our young people the opportunities they deserve.

Litow is IBM’s vice president of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs, and an architect of the IBM P-TECH program. He is a former deputy chancellor of the New York City Public Schools.