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Opening the Door for Low-Income Students to Overcome ‘Aristocracy’ of Higher Ed

September 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
For kids who grew up poor or without higher education role models, the idea of attending one of the best colleges in the country isn't just a dream -- the goal may not have ever occurred to them. Jeffrey Brown looks in on a program that gives select high school seniors the guidance and tools to dream big.
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GWEN IFILL: Now our look at expanding access to the country’s most prestigious universities. It’s part of our focus on inequality in America.

Much attention has been paid lately to the issue of rising student debt and soaring college costs. But for some high-achieving students from lower-income families, the problem is even more acute. They rarely even apply to the nation’s top schools.

Jeffrey Brown reports on efforts to change that.

MAN: In the way that Hobbes and Jefferson envisioned. Let’s start with Hobbes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eight-thirty a.m. on a summer morning on the campus of Princeton University, and these high school students are already engaged in a rigorous discourse about political philosophy.

STUDENT: They’re inherently kind of predisposed to competition.

MAN: OK. We’re getting that. Good, we’re getting there.

STUDENT: They become enemies because you can’t both have that one thing that you want. 

MAN: OK, good.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alejandra Rincon, who grew up in Texas just 15 minutes from the Mexico border, is an honor student at her school. But she said she’d never been exposed to anything like this.

STUDENT: I literally felt like a new dimension in my brain opened up, because I felt that he was teaching us so much, and if I wouldn’t have been here, where would I have learned this?

WOMAN: Alejandra? Donnelly?

JEFFREY BROWN: The class is part of an intensive boot camp for 60 high school students from around the country from inner cities and rural areas, students who never imagined they could attend or afford an Ivy League school.

STUDENT: My parents always said that these schools were for the rich people that could afford it. And so I always thought that it would be very difficult for me to come.

JEFFREY BROWN: The program is called the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, LEDA for short.

WOMAN: I just want to open you up for more options.

STUDENT: OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: It provides academic tutoring and help with the admissions process for students about to enter their senior year of high school, as well as follow-up counseling through four years of college.

Costs run about $23,000 per student, and are paid with private donations. Princeton provides both money and the facilities. LEDA has ambitious goals, to narrow a socioeconomic gap that’s been widening at the nation’s top colleges.

SHIRLEY TILGHMAN, former president, Princeton University: For me, The problem is that we live in the land of equal opportunity, but opportunities in education are not equal for all young men and women who are studying in America today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Shirley Tilghman is the former president of Princeton and a board member at LEDA. She cites recent reports such as one from Georgetown University. Just 14 percent of students at the most competitive colleges come from families in the lower half of the income bracket, and a mere 5 percent come from the bottom quarter.

SHIRLEY TILGHMAN: Where you were born, into what family you are born, what their resources are, are to a large extent are going to determine the quality of education you receive, beginning in preschool and moving all the way up through college.

And what this is going to create in America is a different kind of aristocracy that’s going to be self-perpetuating, unless we find ways to break that juggernaut.

JEFFREY BROWN: An aristocracy, a strong word, but commentators have noted that so many of our leaders today, presidents, Supreme Court justices, Wall Street and corporate leaders, come out of the most elite schools.

In addition, the institution a student attends can have long-term financial consequences. Georgetown researchers found that students who graduate from selective colleges will on average make $2 million more over their lifetime than those attending non-selective ones. Officials at schools such as Princeton have long said they want to recruit a more economically diverse population.

But overall progress has been slow. One problem, many low-income students simply don’t apply. Often, they don’t live near cities where college recruiters go. And they rarely have role models who’ve attended such schools and can guide them through the process.

LEDA, like several other nonprofit groups around the country, tries to provide that guidance.

STUDENT: I need to try my best on it.

WOMAN: Right. So submitting an application that you worked really hard at, right?

JEFFREY BROWN: An extensive recruitment program seeks out promising high school juniors in overlooked geographic regions, and brings them to the six-week summer session that includes classroom work, college essay tutoring, and tours of a dozen different campuses.

It’s made Harrenson Gorman, who lives with his mother on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, think about college in a new way.

HARRENSON GORMAN, student: I just didn’t know anything about college. I always thought it was just kind of like high school. You go there, you get a degree, then you get a job.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do people at home even think about coming to a place like Princeton or another selective school?

HARRENSON GORMAN: I don’t think they do. I feel that a lot of people in my community just — they don’t think they can get any farther than just community college.

JEFFREY BROWN: The same is true for Nebiyu Kebede, who immigrated to Minneapolis from Ethiopia when he was 10 years old. Neither his father, a parking attendant, nor his mother, a nursing home assistant, attended college, although they have always told their son that he must.

NEBIYU KEBEDE, student: I have always known that I could go to a decent school, but that meant my state school or like a nearby school right next to it. It wasn’t an Ivy League or like a highly selective school. Nobody expected you to go that far. And because nobody expected that from me, I really didn’t expect that from myself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lower-income students are also at a disadvantage, because often their families haven’t been able to afford the extras that top-tier colleges increasingly look for.

Shirley Tilghman says she is haunted by the statistic that the best predictor of SAT scores is family income.

SHIRLEY TILGHMAN: I Think what that really reflects is the fact that resources, and not wealth necessarily, but just good middle-class resources, can buy quality of experience for children.

JEFFREY BROWN: When Jake Martin came to the LEDA workshop, it was the first time he had ever left the Hawaiian island he grew up on. He says he hadn’t considered attending anything but a state college because he assumed he couldn’t afford anything else.

JAKE MARTIN, student: For my family, like, college did not — is not a topic that comes up at all. So, I was — I have always been worried about how to pay, or my parents are not saving money. They just talk about getting loans. And I’m worried. Like, I don’t want to come out of college getting loans.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s the good news for low-income students. In reality, they often pay less at elite schools than they would at state schools, since many offer generous financial aid plans.

And there’s more good news. If they do attend a top-tier college, 82 percent graduate, compared to just 49 percent of top students who go to non-selective colleges.

Aya Waller-Bey is on track to be one of those graduates. She was a LEDA scholar four years ago, then went on to Georgetown University. She’s now a senior, and has been mentoring other students from her hometown of Detroit.

AYA WALLER-BEY, student:There’s actually two people from my high school that went through LEDA and who are currently now at Georgetown. So I feel specifically connected to them, coming from the same high school and the same city.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is this now a sort of tradition at your high school?

AYA WALLER-BEY: Yes. We try to start this pipeline of scholars to roll through LEDA and come to Georgetown and other schools too. So, hopefully, it will keep going.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now in its 10th year, LEDA says that some 75 percent of its scholars have enrolled in the nation’s most competitive colleges, a success story, then, but, by any measure, on a very limited scale.

And Shirley Tilghman says far more financial and other support will be needed to address the larger problem. The stakes, she thinks, couldn’t be higher.

SHIRLEY TILGHMAN: When the ability to have movement across social class becomes virtually impossible, I think it is the beginning of the end of a country. And because education is so critical to success in this country, if we don’t figure out a way to create greater mobility across social class, I do think it will be the beginning of the end.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, this year’s LEDA scholars have gone home to attend their final year of high school, keep up their grades, and prepare applications to top colleges and universities, once seemingly beyond their grasp.