Growing up in rural Montana didn’t afford Casey Hammond many opportunities to interact with other top students, but that all changed when he discovered the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) program.
“I’m from a very small, homogeneous town, and coming to LEDA was the first time I was introduced to diversity at such a big scale,’ Hammond said. “Being able to hear the experiences of so many different scholars changed my perception of the world.”
Hammond is now a rising sophomore at Georgetown University. His story is common for participants in LEDA, a program comprised of top-performing high school students from low-income backgrounds. Every summer, these scholars come from south Texas, the Pacific Northwest, Jacksonville, Florida and everywhere in between to Princeton University’s campus for a seven-week leadership program.
According to Joseph Lee, a LEDA employee, 68 percent of the people in the program are first generation college students. All of them have the minds to be among the best students in the country, but relatively few of them are prepared for college in the way in the way someone from a more affluent family would be.
“When you are a first generation college student, by definition there is no one in your immediate family or, chances are, in your community who has gone to college before,” Lee said. “As many people who have gone to college in the U.S. know, the application process can be very intimidating; it’s very long and there are a lot of moving parts to it. Not having easy access to someone who can tell you when deadlines are or other things you need to be paying attention to…that’s really the biggest obstacle.”
Princeton University began partnering with LEDA in 2005, donating campus space, housing and meal plans for scholars in the summer program of about 60 students. In 2014, that partnership expanded, and LEDA now hosts 100 students each summer.
Students in LEDA spend weekdays in class from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. On some days, they’re in discussion-based leadership seminars and college-level writing classes. On other days, it’s ACT and SAT prep for five hours at a time. If it seems excessive, it’s only because most of these scholars were never trained to take either of those tests. Even more intimidating is the probability that most LEDA scholars will only have one chance at both of them.
“A lot of (more affluent) students have the money to keep taking these tests and to hire tutors, whereas students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds do not have those resources available,” Hammond said. “You’ll have students who have plenty of test scores to report and there will be students who have few test scores to report.”
One of the other benefits LEDA tries to offer its scholars is a community of like-minded people. First-generation or low-income college students at top universities usually don’t know anyone in similar situations, which can lead to feelings of loneliness or helplessness. Since most LEDA participants end up attending similar schools, that phenomenon becomes less of a problem.
“I’ve been in touch with (my LEDA friends) through Facebook and Google Hangouts,” said Alejandra Rincon, a LEDA program graduate. “We visit each other over breaks because a lot of us go to schools on the east coast. A lot of us actually ended up in Princeton.”
“What LEDA brings to the table is we’re able to have those like-minded individuals with that support network there,” Hammond said. “The best thing for them after they get to places of higher education is to have that support network and that mentorship.”
Aside from its partnership with LEDA, Princeton University has attempted to increase the number of low-income students on its campus through several different measures. In 2001, Princeton did away with student loans, instead offering scholarships that do not have to be paid back. According to Princeton’s website, 15 percent of Princeton freshmen are first-generation students and 21 percent are eligible for low-income Pell Grants.
Yet even if tuition, lodging and books are taken care of, top colleges like Princeton tend to be in affluent areas that cater to well-off students. This can make having a social life costly. At Princeton, for instance, dues to the popular eating clubs are all more than $8,000., to say nothing of everyday expenses like transportation, toiletries, and school supplies.
“I think that’s one of those hidden costs that a lot of people don’t necessarily take into account,” Lee said. “It really alters and dampens your college experience if you can’t go out with your friends once in awhile.”
Even though most other colleges don’t have the endowment fund to eliminate student loans, Lee says there are still things they can do. Making cheap transportation to campus as accessible as possible and developing low-cost or free out-of-class activities can help lower-income students feel welcome on campus. “Publicizing these things is important too to make student aware that there is a specific infrastructure in place,” Lee said.
Before any of that can help, though, low-income students need to actually get to college, which is what LEDA hopes to achieve. On one particular day of the program, Dan Porterfield, the president of Franklin & Marshall college, came to LEDA to talk about his views on higher education. Low income and first generation college students played a big role in his vision.
“The future of democracy depends upon our ability to educate the young. Any society is in some way dependent upon the youth,” Porterfield said.
His comment was met with a chorus of snapping fingers, a sign from the LEDA scholars that they agreed with what he said.
“Everybody benefits when we invest genuinely in making education more equitable,” he said.