A college education is a right open to all, not a privilege
In my opinion
While 52pc of all 18 to 20-year-olds pursue higher education, among marginalised socio-econimic groups it is less than half of that, 24pc.
Broken down geographically, just under half (47pc) of 18 to 20-year-olds in Dublin pursue higher education, while Donegal and Laois have the lowest per county participation rate, at 41pc each.
In marginalised communities, particularly less-developed city suburbs and rural areas, many young people choose to bypass college entirely, in favour of an immediate transition into the workplace.
Often, this is because it makes economic sense. While this can be a viable solution in the short-term, non-graduates ultimately prove less competitive in the jobs market.
Because so few people in some communities pursue higher education (as low as 15pc in certain Dublin postcodes), there aren't local role models or community resources available to those genuinely interested in continuing their studies after secondary school. This needs to change.
The powers of further and higher education are transformative in the most profound ways, beyond the obvious economic benefits. On average, Irish college graduates are paid 75pc more than their non-graduate peers.
A college qualification, be that a certificate, diploma or degree, functions as a safeguard in an economic downturn. While it by no means guarantees employment, during a recession, graduates are half as likely to experience unemployment as a non-graduate.
As the economy recovers, graduates are being hired at a much higher rate than non-graduates - businesses once again have the money to spend on the most skilled and qualified candidates.
Beyond the purely mercenary advantages of a good qualification though, a college education can set you on a path to greater happiness and fulfilment.
Realising that you can follow your ambitions or make a living off your passion is energising. College graduates lead healthier lives, live longer and tend to pass on their own love for learning to their children.
Not everyone is an academic and that's fine, but not every college course involves dusty old humanities textbooks and microscopes in the lab. Many further education courses hone practical and much in-demand skills, like carpentry, plumbing and hairdressing.
In an increasingly competitive labour market, having the physical qualifications communicate expertise and dedication to an employer.
Education is a journey for life and not just for fresh-faced teenagers. Men and women who have been working for decades can benefit just as much from a college education - or another degree or diploma-than an 18-year-old completing the Leaving Certificate cycle.
For many professionals, the process of "upskilling" is necessary to keep pace with a rapidly changing work environment, particularly influenced by technology. For others, college offers the chance to completely re-route one's career path or pursue a passion.
College Awareness Week, running nationally this week, presents an opportunity for schools, colleges and educational bodies to promote the benefits of a college education for everyone, regardless of age or background.
There are over 400 events across 26 counties in the course of the week. Daily events will promote the benefits of going to college, showcase local role models and support students to become 'college-ready'.
We cannot be complacent about the state of our further and higher education system, in particular the way we promote it. We must ensure it is open and accessible to all. A college qualification is a right and not a privilege, and greater access for all needs to be considered as we move into 2016.
Mary Sheahan is Senior Vice President, Global Integration & Country Manager Ireland at Perrigo, one of the sponsors of College Awareness Week