If our country is going to meet President Obama’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, then our high school students need more college readiness support than ever.

At the center of the college preparation effort, I’ve come to learn, are high school counselors.

While there are many factors that ultimately contribute to a student’s desire and ability to seek higher education, it’s often the counselors who are educating students about college options and about planning their futures. They are the ones fostering the college-going culture within the schools. And they are the ones who recognize that the sooner they plant these seeds (and not wait until junior year), the sooner the possibilities in a child’s mind can blossom.

I’ve seen first-hand the impact of the school counselor’s role in this capacity during the Give Something Back Foundation’s (GSBF) application process for our college scholarship program. GSBF provides mentors and scholarships to help Pell Grant-eligible students go to college and graduate in four years, without any debt, and we’ve been actively recruiting 9th grade applicants in Illinois, New Jersey and Delaware since last fall.

While it may be hard for a 9th grader, who just started high school, to fully understand the unique opportunity of being a GSBF Scholar — the counselors get it.

These school counselors not only plucked the right candidates out of their student body, but also followed through with each of them throughout their application process — ensuring they completed the proper paperwork that would allow them to be eligible for our scholarships. They organized GSBF information sessions with these kids and their families, they provided the report cards and recommendation letters needed to complete applications, they hosted interviews at their schools knowing that many of their students would not be able to get transportation to our scheduled interview destinations. Some even drove the students to weekend interviews to ensure they would be seen and considered.

Others provided evening assistance for those families who needed access to computers and many provided translators for parents who don’t speak English.

And the pride they had in their students? Remarkable.

These school counselors are really shaking the bushes. They are advocating for their students and are ensuring they won’t let this life-changing opportunity pass them by.

Believe me when I say they are making a difference.

As we begin to announce the first cohort of GSBF scholars in our New Jersey and Delaware programs, I want to acknowledge the school counselors who have been instrumental in paving this pathway for so many financially challenged students. And I would like to publicly thank these dedicated individuals for their efforts. In so many cases, they’ve gone above and beyond.

To the parents of these students — you are lucky to have these counselors in your children’s lives.