Being Poor at America’s Rich Colleges

“… while poor kids are underrepresented on elite campuses, the wealthiest kids are overrepresented. At Harvard, 45.6% of undergraduates come from families with incomes above $200,000 — in other words, incomes in the top 3.8% of all American households.” 

For all the lip service to being schools that are open and welcoming to all students, many institutions like Harvard are still recruiting, admitting, and educating the nation’s wealthiest students.

Forbes author Maggie McGrath tackles a challenging topic in this article that examines the experiences of middle and lower-income students who find themselves in some of the privileged worlds of American higher education. They have the brains, motivation and toughness to succeed, but sometimes their backgrounds set them apart from their wealthy peers. I remember when I was a student at Dartmouth, wealth wasn’t always in your face, but if you thought about the fact that only about 50% of students receive financial aid, it meant that the other half of the students had families that could pay the $53,000+ a year with cold hard cash. I think there was even a discount for families that could pay the entire tuition in a lump sum. My parents were certainly not in that category.

While I applaud elite, highly selective universities and colleges for opening up their doors to low income, first generation students in order to diversify their campuses, it’s not enough just to admit the students. Faculty members are not always adept to deal with students from different backgrounds, making assumptions of students and families that can be harmful. There must be support systems in place for these students who are at times out of their comfort zone, especially in campuses were talking about wealth, money, and family background can be taboo. It’s great that schools like Stanford have invested in creating offices where students can learn about others and share experiences that they don’t feel completely isolated on a campus that seeps wealth and everyone has a seemingly carefree attitude. Many students from low income backgrounds have faced challenges in high school and beyond, but had mentors or community based organizations that supported them to be admitted to their highly selective schools. Universities need to ensure that the support continues throughout the undergraduate years to ensure that students don’t drop out. One of the best ways is to create mentoring networks of students from similar backgrounds: 1) to show that there is a community of students like them, and 2) to teach younger students how to navigate semi-adulthood while succeeding academically.

“… take it from someone who’s still navigating this often tricky terrain. Harvard’s Christian Ramirez remembers feeling alone as a low-income student at an Ivy League institution at first, but slowly realizing there were many other students like him and it was okay to ask one of them, or an administrator, for help.” 

 Did you face isolation as a student because it was taboo discuss money on your campus? Write to[at]gmail[dot]com to share your story!Widener-Pic





My Worlds Collide! Diplomacy and Education — MOOCs Connect Students to U.S. Style Education

This past week was a super exciting one for me! The MOOC project that I had been working on for the past two months in the Embassy in La Paz with a local university got some great press through FAST COMPANY and The New York Times! The State Department even featured a video of it on their official Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs page.

I don’t think that MOOCs are going to solve all of the problems in educational inequality all over the world, but for motivated, bright, engaged students like the ones I work with in Bolivia, they are another resource where they can find high quality education at their finger tips — it’s all free and all they need is an internet connection! I plan on continuing the pilot program here, and I hope that many of these students will be inspired in the future to apply to American universities for post grad studies!

NYU and ETS Support Dis-aggregation of AAPI in Admissions — Great Report with Case Studies

I’m grateful to my friends and former colleagues who send me AAPI/Admissions related articles. Today’s update is an important one — albeit it’s a little outdated since it came out this past summer — but is JAM packed with great arguments on why admissions offices / testing organizations/ higher education in general needs to see AAPIs as separate and independent groups. I’ve argued before that clumping all AAPIs makes no sense when they have historical/immigration/income/educational attainment differences (just to name a few).

This article from Inside HigherEd gives a succinct summary of the full report. I am really impressed that Educational Testing Services, home of the GRE and TOEFL, supported this research. I have to call out the College Board SAT Test and ACT Test for stubbornly using “Asian American Pacific Islander” as one group to ID students. I think the years when I was working at Stanford, even ASIANS FROM ASIA (ie, international students) were clumped in to that data. How stupid is that? Let’s hope further research will encourage organizations to be more sophisticated about our populations.

Below are two graphs with the differences in Median Household Income for Asian American Sub-groups, and their educational attainment in the next graph. Thanks to the NYU CARE report for the data.

As always if you have comments or questions, email me at[at]gmail[dot]com


Highly Qualified Students from Low-Income Backgrounds Don’t Apply to Top Colleges

Happy New Year!

Can’t believe it’s already 2013…I’m still in training preparing for a new job, but it gives me more time to explore the world of college admissions. A recent article in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson summarizes new research by Professor Hoxby at Stanford that states that the smartest kids in low income communities are not applying to the best colleges with generous financial aid packages. I heard Professor Hoxby speak about this topic in 2010 (she is an professor of education/economics at Stanford University), and thought a lot about what factors lead students to apply to top schools and where the connection is lost.

It is true, that when I was visiting low income schools in Northern California, there would be schools where only about 12% of the students who graduated would matriculate into a 4 year college, and they had never met someone who had gone to a Harvard or a Stanford. Even though these schools were within 50 miles of Stanford University and UC Berkeley. So much of your world view, especially when you are young is shaped by your community. If your parents work at the Jelly Belly Factory or Travis Air Force Base and your siblings went to community college before taking on a job in your hometown, there is not a lot of ways that you can learn about opportunities for higher learning. On top of that, some guidance and college counselors that I would meet with did not know how to encourage their top students and they were not familiar with need blind financial aid programs. I think Thompson is right that there needs to be better marketing that is targeted toward the right kinds of students.

I spent the last summer volunteering for a political campaign and learned about how data is used for micro-targeting – for example, if you want to find women who are 35-55 years old who live in a certain county and have voted Democrat in the last 5 elections and are in the education sector…you could use your data base to find those people to hit them up for donations or volunteer shifts. Why can’t we use the data collected from the SAT (although they are self-reported by students so there are questions with accuracy) to micro-target students who are exceptionally smart within a community but are not linked within a network that encourages “college going” in their culture. I think a great example of this is College Horizons, which is THE premier college prep program for promising Native American high school students. I have close friends who recruit high school students for this program, and since many Native students live in rural communities, they rely on social networking and word of mouth. I have also seen in the Hmong community while working at Stanford that if you can get one sibling accepted, the younger siblings will aim high for high caliber schools following the foot steps of their siblings.

Lots to think about. On a really exciting note, my best friend brought a friend to visit, and I found out that his cousin was part of the cohort of students that I admitted during my admissions days. Obviously, I did not discuss details of the application, but I went back and read through my notes about the student…and it really warmed my heart to know that he was doing well and about to graduate. There are days when working in education just feel so worthwhile. This was one of them. If you have ideas about how to outreach better to low-income high achieving students, write me at

Happy New Year Everyone!

Research Shows Asian Americans Disadvantaged in College Admissions

Are admissions officers too harsh on Asian American students? Do they evaluate Asian Americans on a different standard and punish “over-achievers?” My experience working at universities is that there are certain Asian American populations that are targeted for minority recruitment and affirmative action, while it is also true that there are middle/upper class Asian Americans that seem to be punished for not “jumping off the paper” with their achievements.

As admissions deadlines loom, the New York Times has kicked the dust up on the Asian American/Affirmative Action debate once again, this time showing various perspectives in addition to research backing the claim that Asian Americans are discrminated. One contributor shows stats proving that Asian American student populations are declining in the Ivy League (even as the population of high school aged-Asian Americans nationwide increases).

While test scores and grades are a common subject of debate, I am glad that Khin Mai Aung, director of the educational equality program @ AALDEF points out the need for diversity WITHIN Asian American populations at colleges.

“Far from harming Asian-Americans, the consideration of diversity in admissions advances equal opportunity for many Asian-American applicants who continue to face educational barriers. Southeast Asians like Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, most of whom came to the U.S. as refugees, have significantly lower educational attainment and higher poverty rates than many other Asian and non-Asian ethnic groups. Without the consideration of diversity, many of these students would be denied an equal opportunity for higher education.”

I agree with her 100%, and worry that so many of these debates simplify the Asian American population into one big monolithic group. I’ve been writing about that problem for years on this blog and faced it in my career as teachers do not seem to understand differences between one Asian group and another when writing teacher recommendations or school policies ignoring these at risk populations all together.

A LA-based journalist in The Atlantic also points out the subtle discriminatory wording in the explanation of a former admission officer discussing why Asian Americans with high test scores may be lacking other attributes that add to a diverse and dynamic learning environment.

So what’s the bottom line? There are many students that have high test scores and great grades that do not make it through the Ivy League admissions process, not just Asian American students…but the excuses and explanations on why Asian American students were not desirable did disturb me at times. “Sounds quiet”…”Will s/he contribute in the classroom?”…while admission officers are trained to look for potential for excellence, I wonder if sometimes we were overly harsh on our Asian American students. AsianRF_NYT

What saddens me the most is Professor Carolyn Chen‘s anecdote that she finds many of her Asian American students are ashamed of their background.

“At Northwestern, Asian-American students tell me that they feel ashamed of their identity — that they feel viewed as a faceless bunch of geeks and virtuosos.”

What a terrible thing not to acknowledge the success and effort of our successful students…! My hope is that admission offices find ways to 1) incorporate under-represented Asian Americans as part of affirmative action and 2) train admission officers to be cognizant of their personal biases and institutional biases against Asian American students. With no other group – Black, Latino, White, Native American, would we punish students for going above and beyond.

Lost in the Message – 3 Myths About Asian Americans and Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action in education. I’m not sure there is a more contentious topic in the world of education these days, especially given that the Supreme Court is weighing in with the Fisher v. University of Texas case on the future of race-based affirmative action.

The debate with affirmative action tends to be very black and white, and there is not a lot of space for Asian Americans within the dialogue. So, when the NYT recently took up Asian Americans and their views on affirmative action in their reporting, I was intrigued.
Let’s take a look at some of their analysis, while at the same time breaking down some of the myths that continue to come up with this subject. I’m writing from a perspective of an Admission Officer from a highly selective school (less than 8% of students are admitted) in my role as an Asian American community liaison.

Myth Number 1: Asian Americans are all the same and and feel one way about affirmative action.
The no 1 myth that bothers all Asian Americans is that we are all the same, originating from the same country, and have the same ideas about certain things. It was great that the NYT tried to break that down with the article above, explaining that Asian Americans are diverse and represent many nations and have different languages, religions and values/traditions. Students interviewed in the article expressed differing opinions regarding AA, and how it may affect Asian American students. I feel really frustrated that Ms. Fisher insists that Whites and Asians are hurt by race-based affirmative action, because that is not always the case. Ever since college, I’ve worked hard to explain to people that race-based doesn’t just mean that a minority applicant takes the spot of a “well qualified white student.” That always seems to be the scenario that is used to argue against AA, but in truth, there is never any scenario when we would sit around in the admissions office and compare a non-white student against a white students and say “They are both well qualified, but we have to admit the minority.” That.never.happens! In general, 2/3 of Asian Americans support AA, according to AALDEF, and ther are close to 100 Asian American orgs that have signed on to amicus briefs supporting the University of Texas, citing that the lawful practice of AA does not discriminate against Asian Americans.

Myth Number 2: Asian Americans don’t benefit from Affirmative Action Here’s another myth that is just wrong. When I worked at my university, we had a position that was focused primarily on ensuring that there was diversity represented within Asian American populations and communities. The conversation had to be a lot more nuanced because within immigrant groups and nationalities, Asian Americans have very diverse levels of educational attainment. I’m always explaining that there are groups like Lao, Hmong, Pacific Islanders (also considered in the same category when they are taking the SAT, etc) who are sometimes graduating less than 10% of their students from BA programs. These are really important communities that have been historically under-represented in our classrooms, but have perspectives that need to be heard. A discussion about the Vietnamese War in a college history class would be so much richer if there were students from Hmong refugee families or Vietnamese American students whose families saw the war from an entirely different lens. My university understood that there are also families that are low-income and are linguistically-isolated (by definition, no one older than 14 years old speaks English well in a household). A friend of mine did her senior thesis on Chinatown in San Francisco, and found that significant numbers of families are linguistically isolated…meaning that students not only have to do their homework and be students, but also serve as translators and interpreters for their families…if bills come, if letters are sent home to parents, etc. These students shoulder so much responsibility, and their voices should be part of the discussion in our history, literature, anthro, and policy discussions. My university would act affirmatively for these Asian American students who were politically active and/or connected to their communities.

Myth Number 3: Affirmative Action Should Just be Based on Socioeconomic LevelsAnother argument that seems to gain traction whenever there is a discussion about affirmative action. Sigh. People argue that they should just scrap race all together and just do it base on socioeconomic levels. Today’s NYT opinion article cites why that would be a really bad idea – severely decreasing the number of black and Hispanic students from our universities (it already happened @ UC Berkeley). Consider this:
“Harvard’s Thomas Kane found that selective colleges and universities using class-based admissions would have to save six times as many places for low-income students to maintain the same level of black and Hispanic students.” (NYT, 11/19/12)

In addition:

“In 2004, they were 14.5 percent and 16 percent, respectively, of those graduating from high schools, but only 3.5 percent and 7 percent of those enrolling in selective colleges and universities. The underrepresentation has gotten worse over the past generation.”(NYT, 11/19/12)

I know the article does not address Asian Americans directly, but taking away policies that look at the diversity within the Asian American community will not help small, underrepresented groups that have been traditionally hurt by inequality in education.

Asian Americans are the fastest growing immigrant population in the nation (see map below from 2010), so this discussion affects us greatly. I’m glad that most Asian American support the lawful practice of affirmative action.

APA High School Congressional Leadership Program in CA

Calling all high school and college Asian American students: Please apply to this great program!

My good friend from CA alerted me to this great program – I recommend it for any student who is interested in political campaign, law-making, community organizing, and other leadership activities!

Background: The annual Asian Pacific Youth Leadership Project (APYLP) conference provides a select group of 50 Asian and Pacific Islander seniors and juniors from public, private and charter high schools throughout California with a unique opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge of the legislative process, community leadership, and political activism. During the four-day, three-night conference, students will participate in a Mock Legislature at the State Capitol that includes the election of peer legislative leaders, lively debate of current issues through the introduction of legislation, and the lobbying of bills during committee hearings and the Senate floor session. Additionally, small group workshops facilitated by Asian Pacific legislative staff, community activists, and business leaders will assist students in developing their leadership and public speaking skills, enhance their cultural awareness and identity, and explore the richness and diversity of Asian and Pacific Islander communities in California.

Good luck and let me know if you have questions about application, as always I am happy to connect via email @