Beth Breger has served as the Executive Director of Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) for over seven years. LEDA is a national organization that seeks to diversify the national leadership pipeline by empowering high-achieving, low-income students to gain admission to and succeed at our nation’s top colleges. Names of LEDA Scholars and their colleges have been changed below to maintain their privacy.

Every April I have the thrilling opportunity to compulsively refresh Facebook and celebrate the exciting college admission results of our LEDA Scholars. Last year, 98% were admitted to the “Most Competitive” colleges in the country (Barron’s, 2016), and 58% percent into an Ivy League school, MIT or Stanford. We know here at LEDA that if the playing field can be leveled, that is, if we can provide resources and support to talented young leaders of this country who come from low-income backgrounds, then these young people will be able to attend the very colleges that churn out the majority of this country’s leaders (Dye, 2014). With a top notch education and the opportunity to develop their academic and leadership potential to its fullest, then they can indeed access the leadership pipeline and ensure that the leadership sector of this country truly represents those who are led.

One would think that once a low-income student gets in and gets his/her financial aid package, the hard work is done. Unfortunately, we at LEDA have come to understand that this is simply not the case. For low-income students attending top colleges, the barriers caused by economic inequality continue. Even though the “cost of attendance” is covered, the “cost of experience” is likely not. In addition, the social capital that is needed to successful leverage the opportunities available at these elite institutions cannot be bought or funded by aid. 

Consider the experience of Annie, a Gates Millennium Scholar, who received a full ride to one of the most prestigious universities in the country, but spent the first several weeks of her freshman year going back and forth to the financial aid office to try to figure out why her refund check (the money for all of her out-of-pocket expenses for that quarter) was only $300, $500 less than expected. Meanwhile, she’s faced with the cost of one text book at $200 and every day getting more and more behind on her homework due to her inability to pay for course materials. During this time, LEDA’s Director of College Success worked with Annie to figure out where to ask for help, how to navigate the financial aid office, what questions to ask, and how to keep from falling behind in her coursework given that she didn’t have funding to purchase the necessary textbooks. Perhaps most important, LEDA provided emotional support to her while she was feeling alienated by these bureaucratic hurdles that she had to overcome in order to access the education that she had earned. 

Consider the experience of John, a freshman at an East Coast Ivy League university, who received straight As in every rigorous class in his high school, but got his first C on his first midterm in college. He drew the conclusion that he “didn’t belong” at the school, and there must have been a mistake by the admission committee. Little did he know that such a rude awakening was common even for students from more privileged backgrounds. He also didn’t know that it was customary, if not expected, to meet with the professor to talk about his exam and solicit guidance on how to improve going forward. In his experience from high school, the only time you engaged with “authority figures” at school was if you were in trouble – that is, sent to the Principal’s office. John was able to share these concerns with a LEDA counselor, who counseled him on the steps that he could take to bounce back from his first C ever, how to engage with his professor, and how to access resources on campus (that he didn’t know existed) which could help him improve his grade from this point forward. In addition, LEDA staff helped him reflect upon his experience in the context of the college transition in general, assuring him that many college freshmen have challenges adjusting to the rigor of highly selective schools, regardless of their income bracket.

We must remember that access itself does not address the ongoing impact of educational inequality. Our Aspects of Leadership Curriculum not only provides Scholars with exposure to the academic rigors of a top college, but the instruction on leadership provides Scholars with the tools they need to continue their paths as leaders despite challenges that they may face along the way, understanding that one of the qualities of a leader is being able to manage adversity, navigate change, and advocate for what you believe in. One key component of LEDA’s model is the community that we provide, and thanks to years of support from the Teagle Foundation, the LEDA Scholar Community remains strong and vital. Scholars continue to receive support from LEDA staff and from each other throughout college. For those of us committed to addressing the disparities caused by income inequality, we must understand that the work isn’t done once a college education begins. The responsibility lies with all of us who are entrenched in this field to continue to support these talented young leaders every step of the way.

Works Cited
Barron’s College Division. (2016). Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges, 32nd Edition. 
Dye, T. (2014). Who’s Running America? Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.