Iris Early, director of recruitment and admission at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, hits the road to find potential scholars in remote corners of the country. (Stan Godlewski for The Washington Post)

Stanford University is the most selective in the country for undergraduate admissions, drawing more than 40,000 applicants a year and turning away 19 for every one it accepts.

But a select cadre of high school seniors is getting into the private university in Silicon Valley at a much higher rate. They are scholars in a nonprofit advising program called Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, which helps students from low-income families apply to college. Fifteen of them applied to Stanford last fall for early admission to the class entering in 2018. In December, the program reports, 14 got in.

That works out to an early admission rate of 93 percent.

The program, based in New York, is selective. Students apply in their junior year, and about 8 percent are accepted for an annual class of 100 scholars. They get free college guidance, classes in writing and leadership development, campus tours, a seven-week summer conference on the campus of Princeton University and other aid. All of that makes their college search process quite atypical.

Still, the numbers stand out.

Here are results the program provided for scholars who received early admission decisions in December from highly selective universities:

  • Brown: two admitted, one deferred
  • Georgetown: one admitted, two deferred
  • Harvard: six admitted, two deferred
  • Princeton: 11 of 11 admitted
  • Stanford: 14 admitted, one deferred
  • University of Pennsylvania: one of one admitted
  • Yale: six admitted, two deferred

Where are these students from? Iris Early, director of recruitment and admission for Leadership Enterprise, hits the road every year to find potential scholars in remote corners of the country. She’s been to Montana, the Dakotas and Nebraska. Recently, she went to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Her team also has been to cities such as New Orleans, Memphis and Little Rock. They have even gone to Hawaii. They hunt for talent in schools with a high share of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Occasionally, recruiters have trouble scheduling visits to these schools because counselors are too busy to make time for them or school policies prevent meetings with individual students.

“We are looking for achievement, grit and persistence,” Early said. “We’re not looking for surface-level involvement. We want to really see that you believe in something, care about something and are committed to it.” Early, 32, is a graduate of Haverford College and has worked for the program since 2008.


Heidy Mejia-Puerta (Family photo)

Heidy Mejia-Puerta, 18, of Hermiston, Ore., was one of this year’s successful Brown applicants. She is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, and neither of her parents went to college. Her mother works at home, and her father is a mechanic on a farm that grows potatoes and alfalfa. Mejia-Puerta said that when she was younger, she thought she would go to a state school. “It was what seemed attainable,” she said. But through Leadership Enterprise, she said, she learned that students like her were in high demand among elite private colleges and universities, and scholarships were available to support those in need. The program taught her, she said: “These schools, they want you. They want people like you. They know what you’re capable of. You know what you’re capable of.”

Mejia-Puerta recalled the day in December when she heard back about her application. She went to the school counseling center in the afternoon and checked a message on Brown’s online portal. “I opened it up. There was confetti on the screen. I was speechless. I started to cry. I was overwhelmed.” Her search is over because early applicants to Brown are committed to enrolling if they get in.

The early phase of the admission cycle tends to have a higher admission rate than the regular phase. Here are the program’s self-reported admission data for its scholars who applied to selected schools for the entire 2017 cycle. In italics are overall admission rates for those schools:

  • Brown: 13 of 34 admitted, 38 percent. Overall: 8 percent
  • Columbia: five of 13 admitted, 38 percent. Overall: 6 percent
  • Cornell: two of seven admitted, 29 percent. Overall: 13 percent
  • Dartmouth: one of three admitted, 33 percent. Overall: 10 percent
  • Harvard: six of 17 admitted, 35 percent. Overall: 5 percent
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology: two of five admitted, 40 percent. Overall: 7 percent
  • Princeton: 33 of 56 admitted, 59 percent. Overall: 6 percent
  • Stanford: 29 of 50 admitted, 58 percent. Overall: 5 percent
  • U-Penn.: 10 of 31 admitted, 32 percent. Overall: 9 percent
  • Yale: 14 of 30 admitted, 47 percent. Overall: 7 percent

Not all of the program’s scholars go to this sampling of the most selective universities. Since the program’s founding in 2003, nearly 800 scholars have enrolled in 161 schools, data show, including the Universities of California at Berkeley (4), Maryland at College Park (2) and Wyoming (1). Many have also gone to liberal arts colleges, including Occidental (16), Davidson (12), Middlebury (9) and Reed (6).


Eriana James, who is in Georgetown University’s class of 2020, is among 35 scholars from Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America who have enrolled in the D.C. school over the years. (Family photo)