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September 12, 2013

Program Helps Low-Income Students Discover A Path to Top Colleges

With rising student debt and soaring college costs that can top $50,000 a year, high-achieving students from low-income households rarely dream of applying to the nation’s top colleges.

“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,” said Alejandra Rincon, an honors student from Texas who is attending an intensive summer program at Princeton University.

She is part of a program known as the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) which provides talented low-income students entering their senior year of high school with the academic resources to enter highly selective colleges and universities.

Former Princeton University president and LEDA board member Shirley Tilghman says that the program is necessary for promoting equality and competition in America.

“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,” she said. “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.”

Now in its 10th year, LEDA says that some 75 percent of its scholars have enrolled in the nation’s most competitive colleges. While LEDA has been a success, it can only reach a fraction of the nation’s low-income high achieving students.

“When the ability to have movement across social class becomes virtually impossible, I think it is the beginning of the end of a country,” said Tilghman. “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.”


“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,” Harrenson Gorman, 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,” Nebiyu Kebede, student.

Warm up questions
  1. What words or images come to mind when you hear the words “Princeton” or “Harvard”?
  2. Do you think that being rich necessarily means that you will receive a better education throughout your life?
  3. The median household income in the United States was $50,502 in 2011 (source: Wikipedia). Is it possible for an average family to afford to go to a college that costs $50,000 a year? Why or why not?
Discussion questions
  1. Is it worth spending $200,000 over four years on college? Why or why not?
  2. Do you think there is a relationship between how expensive a college is and how “good” it is? What is the relationship?
  3. Does attending an “Ivy League” college help you to get a better job? How does this or doesn’t this happen?
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