As we emerge from a global pandemic, many are feeling optimistic about the economy. But the future is not smooth sailing quite yet. As shuttered industries are opening and people are returning to work, a labor shortage looms.

By 2022, Minnesota will be almost 240,000 people short of what our labor force needs, according to data from MN Compass. That is more than Target Field, Target Center, TCF Bank Stadium, U.S. Bank Stadium and the Xcel Energy Center combined — each at full capacity. Many of these jobs require two-year college degrees or certifications, in fields as diverse as health care, information technology, education and business.

Beyond the obvious benefit to the economy, community and technical colleges can be a path out of poverty: People with an associate degree earn, on average, nearly $300,000 more over their lifetimes than those with high school degrees alone, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In addition, higher income is linked to better health and a longer life, based on a frequently cited study published in JAMA Network.

The solution may seem obvious, but there is a problem: On average, less than 35% of students who start a two-year degree finish it, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

To address the lack of people with two-year degrees, a variety of plans are in motion, some that include paying for community college. Other theories propose funding community colleges directly (versus the student), as recently described by Glenn Hubbard in The Washington Post. Is cost the biggest barrier? Is free tuition the answer? Is more funding to colleges the answer?

A sometimes overlooked factor that might be the answer is a lack of information and imagination about college in general, and community colleges in particular. How many successful people with community college degrees do high school students meet? How much do they know about the kinds of careers they could have? More money won't help if a future student has no idea of the possible careers and futures awaiting them.

Lack of support is another barrier — who can students talk to when they need help or answers to the host of questions that college students invariably have? Because community colleges do not typically have on-campus housing, the natural peer network and social capital can be hard to acquire. Community colleges serve a larger proportion of first-generation students, low-income students, students of color, English language learners, and students with learning disabilities than four-year colleges. Plus, community colleges have fewer resources to help students (they typically receive 25% or less of a state's higher education funding, according to the American Association of Community Colleges).

I believe we have a barrier-breaking solution, right now, and right here in Minnesota. Designed for two-year college students, it combines financial aid with a professional advisor (matched to each student for the duration of their college years) and access to career pathways and internships.

This is not a new approach. For nearly 30 years, Wallin Education Partners, founded by local business leader Win Wallin and his wife, Maxine, has helped thousands of students — most of them first-generation students of color from lower-income families — complete four-year degrees. More than 90% of four-year Wallin scholars graduate in six years, compared with the average of 63% for all four-year college students, according to the Pell Institute. And now, thanks to new support, Wallin has developed a program for community college students, Opportunity Pathways.

The beauty of the "wrap-around support" Opportunity Pathways offers is that it can begin before a student enters college, without changing any other systems or processes. And because it is highly individualized and personal, while also replicable and scalable, it can be applied to any student or any two-year program. Already, among the first two cohorts of students, 73% of students persist year-to-year, compared with about 50% of their peers.

Any effort to make college more affordable and attainable is, in my opinion, worth supporting. However, cost is not the only barrier; we must think more broadly. We need a flexible, holistic solution, and we need it now.

Instead of waiting for a national or structural solution, let's do what we can to lift community colleges as a valuable choice for students, and then stay alongside them with financial aid, informed advising, connections and career pathways.

Susan Basil King is president and CEO of Wallin Education Partners.