America, built on the dream of upward mobility, has become a country of deepening divide between rich and poor. The surest way to narrow the wealth gap is to earn a college degree. Now major universities like Princeton are working to lower the price of admission through a new kind of affirmative action, not based on race, but on low-income status. It began with two of America's wealthiest parents, Bill and Melinda Gates. They spent more than a billion dollars putting low-income minority students through college. Before they tell you what they learned, come meet some of the Gates Millennium Scholars.
Imagine having a couple of billionaires walk into your life and make the seemingly impossible, possible.
That's what Bill and Melinda Gates did for these students at the University of Central Florida. They're among 20,000 nationwide whose tuition and expenses were paid in full.
Scott Pelley: When you were notified that you'd received the scholarship, was that a letter, an email, a phone call? How did that come to you?
VOICES: A letter.
Scott Pelley: Came as a letter? Snail mail? (Laugh) Really?
Daisha: Yeah. I think it was priority.
Scott Pelley: The founder of Microsoft, and you got a snail mail acceptance letter? When you got that letter, what did you think?
Daisha: My mom, she opened my mail. (Laugh) And then that's when she broke the news to me that I got the scholarship. (Crying) I'm sorry.
Nearly 70 percent of Americans don't have a degree and Kaira Kelly was destined to be one of them. She grew up in poverty and even today, she wastes nothing because as a child she often had only one meal a day, the free lunch at school.
Kaira: I guess I never really dreamed of going to college. I just knew I just had to do what I could do to make sure that my family and I could survive.
Scott Pelley: When you started the scholarship what were the big questions that you wanted to answer?
Bill Gates: Well one was whether a group of minority students could have very high achievement, go to the toughest universities if there was no financial constraint.
Scott Pelley: You assumed that minority students would do as well in higher education. But what you were looking for was data, hard facts?
Melinda Gates: You bet. What's proven itself out now with the scholarship program, is you remove that barrier, they not only do as well as their white peers, no matter what zip code they're from. They often actually do better.
The Gates program looked for good students but not necessarily the top of their class. The results have been remarkable. Nearly 90 percent of the Gates Scholars have earned a degree and that's life-changing because, on average, graduates earn a million dollars more in their lifetimes.
Now it's Kaira Kelly who's doing the teaching after earning a bachelor's and master's degree in education with her Gates Scholarship.
Scott Pelley: As college becomes more expensive and student debt rises, what's at stake for America?
Bill Gates: Well, it's a huge problem. We'll have a two-class society where the richer families are able to support the scholarship and you'll have an inner-city, mostly minority group that's no longer going to those elite colleges and therefore a lot of the high paying professions are out of their reach. So that's really bad at an individual level. It's also very bad for the country and our basic founding credo of equal opportunity and our economic strength.
Bill Gates' warning echoes on the quad of Princeton University.
Christopher Eisgruber: We have to be a place where people can come together from lots of different backgrounds.
President Christopher Eisgruber is leading the nearly 300-year-old school through a radical transformation.
Scott Pelley: You know, the 20th century activist, Upton Sinclair, described Princeton as, quote: "the most perfect school for snobbery in America."
Christopher Eisgruber: We look back and we see those kind of quotations about us and we have been working to produce a very different Princeton. And this commitment we have to be a real leader on socioeconomic diversity is a big part of taking the next step for us and making the right kind of difference in the world.
To make his point, Eisgruber showed us yearbooks going back a hundred years.
Christopher Eisgruber: This one's from way back in 1915. And you can see obviously we're all male and we're all white.
68 years later, Eisgruber graduated from Princeton.
Christopher Eisgruber: So, we've run the clock the forward pretty rapidly.
Scott Pelley: Now we have women.
Christopher Eisgruber: Now we have women.
Scott Pelley: And here's an African-American student. But only occasionally in 1983.
Over the next 30 years minority representation more than doubled to 40 percent. But it wasn't enough. 60 percent of its students were still from the top ten percent income bracket. So Princeton decided to start recruiting students based on socio-economic status.
Christopher Eisgruber: We realized we had to train our readers in the admissions office to look for different things in these applications. A kid who's working two jobs to help bring money home and achieving great grades isn't going to have the same kind of extracurriculars as a kid from an elite private school in New York.
Scott Pelley: But if two applicants with the same test scores, the same GPA apply, are you going to prefer the first-generation, low-income student?
Christopher Eisgruber: We do think those students supply something special on this campus. So yes, we're looking for that.
Scott Pelley: It's a new kind of affirmative action, it sounds like?
Christopher Eisgruber: Yes. It's a new way of making sure that we have the diversity on our campus to deliver on the kind of education that we care about and that the world needs.