The Need

The Need

Exceptional students from under-resourced backgrounds have unequal access to the top-tier colleges that cultivate most of our country's leaders. Bridging the gap not only equalizes opportunity – it strengthens society by diversifying the perspectives and ideas that impact our future.

Unequal Access to the Leadership Pipeline

A recent study found that 49 percent of corporate industry leaders and 50 percent of government leaders graduated from only 12 selective colleges and universities.1 It’s clear that these institutions – and a few dozen other top schools – constitute a pipeline to our nation’s leadership sector. Apart from the quality of the education these institutions provide, there is the world they open to their graduates: the benefits of going to college with intellectual equals who are themselves connected to leadership sectors and the social and networking capital that comes with a degree from a highly selective college.

But these colleges and universities are rarely on the radar for the estimated 30,000 high-achieving, under-resourced students who graduate from high school each year. More than 70% of students at the nation’s 193 most selective colleges come from families in the top income quartile. Just 3 percent come from households in the bottom quarter.2

This phenomenon, known as “undermatching,” has long-term consequences for high-achievers from under-resourced families: lower graduation rates, fewer opportunities after college and the possibility of a continued cycle of economic disadvantage. But it also has far-reaching consequences for our society: We are missing out on many young people with innovative minds and leadership qualities who could—and should—be helping to shape our future.

This lack of diversity means that the leadership pipeline fails to represent the citizens of a society built on the ideals of equality. This point was underscored in an important 2016 report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. “[W]e are relegating our brightest minds from low-income families to attend institutions with fewer resources, lower graduation rates, lower paying employment prospects, and reduced access to the upper echelons of leadership and commerce,” the report said. “…It’s a story of demography determining destiny.”3


Impediments to Access: The Far-Reaching Effects of Economic Inequality

Each year, there are thousands of under-resourced, high achieving students from public high schools who don’t even consider the possibility of attending a highly competitive college despite their superior academic records and potential for leadership. A confluence of factors serves to hinder their access to institutions that their more affluent peers typically apply to as a matter of course.

It starts with access to information and support—itself a function of the economic disparities in our nation’s secondary education system. We know from experience that superior students of diverse backgrounds often don’t receive the guidance that’s essential to starting them on the road toward a college that’s a good match for their intellectual abilities and aspirations. In school districts that serve students that are underrepresented at highly selective institutions, college guidance services are often very limited. Moreover, because the majority of students at these schools who pursue higher education after graduation choose to attend state or community colleges close to home, counselors may not be familiar with the complexities of applying to highly selective colleges. They may also be unaware of the process for securing the financial aid that that is available to talented under-resourced students to attend highly selective schools.

Under-resourced students also lack the kind of personal and often sophisticated guidance and support that more affluent students receive as they are preparing to apply to colleges. High-achieving students in well-resourced communities are more likely to have guidance counselors who encourage them to apply to competitive colleges and who understand the application process for these schools. These students have access to academic advising and standardized test preparation that positions them to demonstrate their abilities through rigorous courses and high standardized test scores. They often have family and friends who have attended selective colleges, and they attend high schools that college admissions officers visit on recruiting trips.

LEDA overcomes both the information and resource gap by providing our nation’s most talented under-resourced students with these same advantages. LEDA Scholars are exposed to the range of college options available to them through campus visits, info sessions, dinners, and fly-out opportunities. Our college counselors guide them through every step of the complex process of applying for admission and financial aid, helping them overcome the hidden costs of applying to selective schools. Scholars receive the kind of academic advising and test preparation that allow their applications to stack up against those of their more affluent peers. And perhaps most importantly, the LEDA community of staff and Scholars reminds them every day that they belong at the best schools in the country.


Bridging the Access Gap – and Diversifying the Leadership Pipeline

Recruitment: Selective colleges that seek students from underrepresented communities tend to focus their recruitment efforts on high schools in or near major cities, often schools that have admissions criteria themselves. But we know from experience that superior students of diverse backgrounds can and do come from any place in the country, from big cities to rural communities. Therefore, LEDA undertakes an aggressive national recruitment process.

In each state, we identify and target individual schools with rigorous academic programs (IB, honors, AP, dual enrollment) as well as high percentages of students receiving free or reduced-priced lunch. These are schools that do a good job cultivating the abilities of their highest achieving students but lack the resources to support them in applying to highly selective institutions. Our recruiters spend a lot of time on the road, visiting schools throughout the country and meeting with students and their guidance counselors. We also partner with other nonprofits with similar goals in order to identify and reach as many qualified students as possible. At the end of the process, we offer admission to 100 high-school juniors who have proven their leadership potential through their academic achievements, their contributions to their communities, and their drive to succeed.

Focusing our recruitment process socioeconomic need, leadership potential, and academic ability has yielded a highly diverse cohort of students each year; the LEDA Scholars program is the most diverse among programs that seek to expand higher-education opportunities. Since our program’s inception in 2003, LEDA Scholars have come from rural and urban communities in 49 states, and from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. They have an average household income of $35,800 per year. Of our most recent Cohort, 87% will be first-generation college students.

Preparation: Students begin their LEDA experience with the Aspects of Leadership Summer Institute, an intensive seven-week experience on the campus of Princeton University, where LEDA Scholars develop their leadership skills through a rigorous and innovative curriculum. The summer program also includes writing instruction, standardized test preparation, college-application guidance and community building. Our internal research confirms that this preparation yields tangible results. Surveys measuring attitudes and beliefs about leadership at the end of the program have found that Scholars show significant decreases in hierarchical thinking, a benchmark of leadership development. LEDA Scholars also report that the Summer Institute provides them with crucial knowledge of the institutions and opportunities available to them and a deeper understanding of the academic expectations of selective colleges, and serves to prepare them for the rigor of highly selective colleges.

Admission: College Guidance at LEDA specializes in helping students identify the highly selective colleges and universities that are the best fits for them. LEDA College Guidance supports Scholars and their families through every aspect of the application process from college research to matriculation. Steadily rising numbers of LEDA Scholars have been admitted to colleges classified as “Most Competitive” by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges. Indeed, 98% of our Cohort 16 Scholars – the high school graduating class of 2021 – was admitted to at least one of these top-ranked colleges, including 69% who were admitted to at least one Ivy League school or Stanford.

Overall, since we began in 2003, 85 percent have enrolled in a Most Competitive school and 36 percent in an Ivy League college. In addition, LEDA Scholars have been awarded dozens of the most prestigious national scholarships in recent years: Gates Foundation, Horatio Alger, Jack Kent Cooke, and Ron Brown scholarships.

Success and Leadership: LEDA’s College Success team maintains close contact with each Scholar throughout their college years – from the freshman transition through career planning as graduation approaches. We visit them on campus, connect them with older Scholars at their schools, and bring them together at events. We also connect them with internship and networking opportunities and ensure that they are making the most of their college experience.

This is one reason why LEDA Scholars have an average college GPA of 3.28 and a six-year graduation rate over 90%. Many of them pursue graduate study at the country’s most prestigious institutions. Others have entered the workforce at top companies including Amazon, Citigroup, Deloitte & Touche, Google, Exxon, and Merck; or joined government and nonprofit organizations such as the Peace Corps, Teach For America, and the U.S. State Department.

LEDA Scholars like Christine and Garland have shared the impact that LEDA has had on their academic, professional, and personal development. Visit our YouTube channel to hear from additional Scholars about the way LEDA has helped to shape the trajectory of their lives.


1The institutions are Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, MIT, Cornell, Chicago, Northwestern, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, UPenn, and UC Berkeley. (Thomas Dye, Who’s Running America? Paradigm Publishers, 2014)

2Hoxby, Caroline and Christopher Avery. (2013) The Missing “One-Offs”: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students. Brookings Institution.

3Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. (2016) True Merit, Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities (Analysis of U.S. Department of Education data)

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