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Giving low-income students the dream and guidance to attend top schools

“In my family, college is not a topic that comes up at all.”

“A lot of people in my community don’t think they can get farther than community college.”

“Nobody expected me to go to an Ivy League school. And because nobody expected that from me, I didn’t expect that from myself.”

These were the laments of some of the 60 high school seniors who recently visited the campus of Princeton University, selected for an intensive six-week summer boot camp that encourages top-notch, low-income students to apply to the most selective schools in the country. The program is called the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, or LEDA for short. Its goal is ambitious: to help narrow the socioeconomic gap that’s been widening at the nation’s top colleges.

A recent report from Georgetown University showed that only 14 percent of students at competitive colleges come from the lower half on the income bracket. A mere 5 percent come from the bottom quarter.

“Where you were born, into what family you are born, what their resources are, to a large extent are going to determine the quality of education you receive,” says Shirley Tilghman, former president of Princeton and a LEDA board member. “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.”

Although officials at schools like Princeton have long said they want to recruit a more economically diverse population, progress has been slow. One problem: Many low-income students don’t live near cities where college recruiters go. And they rarely have role models who have attended such schools and who can guide them through the process.

LEDA, like several other non-profit groups around the country, tries to provide that guidance. Every year, LEDA sends recruiters to overlooked geographic regions of the country, seeking high school juniors who are high-performing academically but who never imagined they could attend — or afford — an Ivy League school. Sixty students are provided with academic tutoring and help with the college admissions process.

Now in its 10th year, LEDA has a college matriculation rate of 100 percent. According to the Heckscher Foundation, 27 percent of the LEDA scholars attended Ivy League schools, 48 percent attended “Most Competitive Schools,” as classified by Barron’s. Eighty-seven percent of the scholars earned their bachelor’s degree within six years.

Five of this year’s scholars talked to the NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown for a report about the widening income in education. They also shared stories, photos and videos of their lives back in their hometown. The students included:

  • Jake Martin, a native Hawaiian who had never before traveled to the U.S. mainland
  • Alejandra Rincon, who lives in Hildago, Texas, just 15 minutes from the Mexico border
  • Nebiyu Kebede, who immigrated to Minnesota from Ethiopia when he was 10 years old
  • Anneleissa Coen, from Eugene, Ore., whose parents never attended college
  • Harrenson Gorman, who lives with his mother on the Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico

All five said the LEDA program had inspired them to work hard and dream big for college.