Minnesota consistently ranks in the top five states in test scores, high school graduation and college participation rates. And yet, even here, thousands of students drop out or fail to pursue any postsecondary education.

That's not good for the students or the wider community. Too little education nearly guarantees a lifetime of poverty. And although the economy and job market are struggling now, young people still must be prepared to join the workforce when opportunities arise.

Enter Ramp-Up to Readiness. A project of the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota, Ramp-Up has the ambitious goal of increasing the number and diversity of Minnesota students at postsecondary institutions. The idea is to work with students as early as seventh grade to help them sort through their passions, interests and abilities. Armed with that information, they can start selecting course work that prepares them for learning and a career after 12th grade.

Eleven metro-area junior and senior high schools are participating in the design phase of the program this year. Each school received a grant to hire a counselor who will experiment with the Ramp-Up concept, including projects that help students discover their best learning styles and begin to plot their routes to higher learning. A team of U of M faculty will take the best ideas from the pilot and develop a curriculum for all state schools.

The program wisely does not advocate solely for four-year colleges. Whether it's cosmetics or computers, pipefitting or physiology, young people are encouraged to examine a range of possibilities.

Some other Minnesota schools have similar programs. The STEP program helps north metro students explore the courses available at Anoka Technical College. And Century College has a partnership with several charter schools to help prepare students for college work. However, Ramp-Up is poised to be taken to scale, reaching all Minnesota kids.

Families, students and postsecondary institutions save time and money if fewer students require remedial help after high school. State government and businesses benefit when young people are well educated and prepared to move into the job market. If young people begin thinking about career options earlier and align their course work accordingly, they're more likely to become successful adults and be less dependent on government services.

Research from the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Excellent Education found that Minnesota's 2007 class of dropouts could cost the state nearly $4 billion in lost wages and taxes over their lifetimes. Conversely, educated people with good jobs and bright futures tend to become informed voters, wise consumers and engaged citizens.

Ramp-Up and similar programs can help narrow another challenging "gap'' in education -- the one between what kids learn in secondary school and what they need to know for higher learning and adulthood.