Young Katherine scored among the top 5th percentile in Kenya’s national primary education examinations. An academically gifted student, she also comes from an economically marginalized household. Without any financial and mentoring support, she would have become another statistic—among the millions of young Kenyans who are unable to afford secondary school.

Only 64 percent of primary students in Kenya enter secondary school and even fewer graduate. Despite the highly successful Free Primary Education Policy instituted by the Government of Kenya in 2003, only four percent of students who complete 8th grade attend university largely due to the costs of secondary education. These dismal trends are consistent across Sub-Saharan Africa where, on average, less than 30 percent of students attend secondary school and less than 5 percent enter university. When disaggregated by gender, the numbers of girls making it through the educational pipeline are especially bleak.

Why does this matter? Secondary school education is the bridge between primary and tertiary education and the labor market. For every year that a young girl stays in secondary school, she boosts her future earnings by 10 to 20 percent. At a national level, this can trigger prospects for economic growth—a single percentage point increase in secondary education for young women boosts GDP by 0.3 percent.

Secondary education occurs at a critical time in adolescent development. This is when key socialization skills are formed and civic consciousness is raised. In many ways, secondary education contributes to nation-building and shaping the citizenry of a country. Evidence also suggests that increased education confers positive impact on the health of youth, reducing risks of HIV.

Africa needs to invest in developing a skilled workforce to compete in a global economy. There is an urgent need to bridge the crucial transitions between primary and secondary school, and from secondary to tertiary education.  However, unless we reverse current trends, growth of many African economies will be constricted by this bottleneck in access to secondary education.

How do we open up the pathways to secondary education? While much of the global policy dialogue rightly centers on reforming and improving quality of education, we must be more imaginative about creating equal access to quality education for bright young people living in poverty. A World Bank report confirms that simple financing interventions such as scholarships are sometimes the best and only means of attracting and retaining economically and socially vulnerable youth, particularly girls, in secondary school.

This is why the MasterCard Foundation and the Equity Group Foundation are launching the largest secondary school scholarship program in Kenya that addresses students’ needs in a comprehensive manner, incorporating financial support—for tuition, books, uniforms and stipends—and emphasis on mentorship and leadership development opportunities and training.  And, one of the scholarship recipients is Katherine. This program will enable her to complete her secondary education and will provide her with mentoring and leadership development. When I met her, only six months into her secondary school term, Katherine was confident, ambitious and excited about classes, new friends and already thinking about future plans to go to university.

The impacts are indelible and telling. Clearly, investments in thousands of Katherines will yield high returns in thousands of educated Kenyans who will contribute to their country’s progress.

We need to put secondary education on the global policy agenda. We also must create pathways to quality and relevant secondary education in Sub-Saharan Africa, so that it will become the bridge to young people’s future, rather than a missing link.