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





Not to Add Fuel to the Asian Stereotype Fire…Fascinating BBC Article on Education Craze in Asia

This article about what lengths parents will go to Asia to support their students popped up on my twitter feed from the BBC, and I wanted to share it because the fact that so many Chinese students want to study in the U.S. shows two things:

1) The higher education system in the U.S. is still one of the strongest resources that America has to offer

2) There exists a perception that the Chinese education systems still lack the power to prepare individuals for success in the globalized context. I think this will change, given the university partnerships that so many U.S. schools are willing to forge with Chinese institutions, but there is still a huge benefit for international students who study in the U.S.

Some incredible stats from the article:

  • Last year an estimated 40,000 Chinese students travelled to Hong Kong to take the US college admissions exam, the Scholastic Assessment Test (SATS), which is not offered in mainland China.
  • Chinese education company, New Oriental Education, organises SAT trips to Hong Kong for $1,000 (£627) on average, and parents spend up to $8,000 (£5,020) on tutoring.
  • It does not stop there. Nearly 87% of Chinese parents said they were willing to fund study abroad.
  • 70% of Korean household expenditure, according to estimates by the Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul, goes toward private education, to get an educational edge over other families.

Thinking of our American high school students competing with that firepower from Asia…wow.

Any thoughts you’d like to share? Comment below or email me[at]gmail[dot]com

Photo Credit: Reuters


Reader Response: Educational Attainment in the Hmong Community

Today I want to share a heartfelt letter from a young Hmong woman who explains the lack of educational attainment in her community. Since I worked closely with the Hmong community at Stanford, and I was able to do recruitment programs in Fresno, Sacramento, and other Central Valley cities, I was really interested in her perspective. I think that the lack of peers and adults with higher educational degrees can be a limiting factor for students, and I hope that universities understand that in order to break that cycle, they have to be very aggressive about recruiting talented students from these communitites.

I read your article, “Highly Qualified Students from Low-Income Backgrounds Don’t Apply to Top Colleges”. It reminded me how frustrated I felt when my high school senior baby sister wanted to stay home and go to a community college for a “Nursing” degree because the mentality that “it is not where you attend school, it is how hard you work and how you utlilize your degree”. That mentality is dangerous considering her applying for the Gate Millenium Scholarship.


I asked her, “You are applying for the Gate Scholarhsip and you want to use that fund to go to an over-crowded community college?” She said yes and my parents and my other siblings supported her decision. Here is a kid who is graduating valedictorian, who have such a promising college career but her thought is, “Other people got their degree here, so why not do the same?” She doesn’t understand the world consist of a lot more than a brain drained town.


I agree that in the Hmong community, if one sibling get accepted to a high caliber school then the younger siblings will follow suit. Part of my frustration is that I wasn’t that sibling; I could have but I didn’t aim that far because of the fear that I didn’t want to burden my parents with the debt of attending such high caliber university with a big tuition. There was no one to hold my hands when I was a high senior. But I am here telling her she can do better than a overcrowded university or some burned out university that is cutting classes and prolonging graduation. The response I get is, “Why didn’t you do it then?” Because I didn’t do so; therefore, she think she don’t have to as well.


Other people come to the defense of her decision by saying, “I  went to a community college; those UC kids, they’re not all that! They’re pretty stupid too, you know”, which is beyond the point why I push her to attend anything else either than a community college. I grew up in an environment in which if you have a high school degree or a doctorate then people will bash you for not knowing anything because you only have a high school degree, or being a “smart ass” because you have doctorate degree. And because of stories about young Hmong folks who go off to big universities and come right back to this town to work at the fields instead of being a doctor or a lawyer. Or come back and tell people here the way we live here is wrong because they got to induldge in culture unlike here where the Hmong population is big and stigmas are strong. That really discourage people to seek more because if it is going to turn them into ignorant brats then they don’t want to go there and spend that much money. That instill a mentality that if you see that there are folks who aren’t successful by attending a high caliber university then you don’t have to go there because even people who went there aren’t successful; therefore, it is not the school but the person.


But I see it differently. It is the school that provide the resources and people that one needs to have in order to be successful. It is the school: either you attend one where you constantly fight for classes or where you know you will have a spot in the classroom. She can go where she can meet people who will push her to be successful or stay here and kind of just hang out like all of us here. I feel like a mother who push the child to do something I couldn’t accomplish but it is for her own good. I an older child and I didn’t have a sibling as my personal driver or bank account when I was in high like how she have me and my older siblings as her driver and bank. It is so frustraing and disheartening, it make me sad. Until someone in the family go out and beats the odds and prove everything that had been said about going away to a high caliber university is wrong; until someone break that old mentality that as long as you have a degree then you will be fine in life (employers still care about where you attend school); then everyone will just keep following the same path.


My boyfriend is the same. He wanted to attend [A High Calibe University] for their great English Department but he changed his mind that he don’t want to study English anymore; he want to be a [another degree] so he will settle for his local university. That is not bad but when given the top 10 choices for him to pick from, he said he don’t want to because it is cheap to go to the local school, even though he will be transferring out from the community college with honors and a GI Bill package. Money is not the problem here. The problem is people are too well rooted where they are. But he is bright enough to tell me, “You don’t want me to stay here because you don’t want me to be rooted here just like you. You don’t want me to get stuck here in this small town just like you.” OF COURSE. Plus, he is the youngest child and he don’t need to stay home and work to provide for his family. Everyone else can take care of themselves so why is he limited himself?


My suggestion is to break the poor man’s mentality that he should be complacent with what he have. If we are all complacent with what we have, our people and our community will not advance. High school counselors are not trained to do that. They were trained to tell us how to apply for college. They don’t know why we think any college is good enough for us. Rick Santorum said people shouldn’t attend college, they just need to work hard. The reason is he don’t want other people competing with him – he don’t want young poor colored kids to learn about working smart where you don’t have to shed a sweat, competing with him for equal power and money. We are just going along with it when we settle for last.”

Thank you so much for sharing your perspective, and I hope that as educational professionals, family members, and community leaders, we are able to support our young people reach their highest goals for education.

Do you have comments that you’d like to share with this reader or me? Please write at us at[at]gmail[dot]com


Stanford University’s Hmong student group used to help with recruitment outreach with an overnight admissions visit and workshop! It would be so wonderful if students at different univesrities could help their siblings and communitites in this way too!

“Personal Statement”- Hilarious YA Novel About Admissions Arms Race


Screaming “Let Me In” at the top of your lungs….

Thanks to the generosity of Ms. Saira Rao over at In This Together Media, I spent the last three days engrossed in Personal Statement, a hilarious young adult novel about the perils of the college admissions arms race. The author, Emmy-nominated Jason Odell Williams, has the keen ability to climb into the minds of over-stressed, competitive teenagers in a privileged suburb of CT as they plot and plan their way into their perfect “personal statement” scenario: natural disaster volunteering. On their journey, they discover that perhaps they’ve lost their way, and question whether or not the stress they face is worth the battle! I commend Mr. Williams for taking often ignored but bubbling under the surface topics like race (Asian American stereotype – one of my favorite topics), class, privilege, the technology revolution and its impact on education and pressure to succeed by any means necessary(!!!) all in this short novel targeted toward young adults getting ready for the college process!

The four characters, Emily Kim, Robert Clinton III, Alexis J. Could, and Rani Caldwell, all read like familiar applicants…probably because I read personal statements from many students like them during my former career as an admissions officer at Stanford University. The four of them are highly motivated, academically excellent, cut-throat competitive and don’t take “NO” for an answer. They are also personifications of privilege and wealth, and aside from Emily and two romantic interests that come and go, almost all benefit from their parent’s educational background and societal know-how. I was impressed how Mr. Williams can ferociously mock Asian American stereotypes (with the Korean American immigrant parents dressing Emily in Ivy League one-zies) as well as wealthy legacy African Americans (using “summer” as a verb and trying to keep connected with their “folks in the community”), while at the same time keeping up with teenage tech and lingo…I would recommend it to parents just that they can get a primer on the newest app that their kids are using! (While at the same time, I worry that the technology citations will make the book lose it’s “newness” as trends come and go…)

For me, two things really stood out: the parents who don’t listen to what their kids want, and the kids who are “racing to no where” with their ambitions in hand. All of the main characters are balancing their genuine and sometimes desperate need to please their parents and their own intellectual curiosity and desire to make a difference. Everyone sees college as an end goal – from the kids who want to post their acceptances on social media to the parents who can’t wait to brag to their gym buddies about the future of their offspring! I saw so many parents just like this in information sessions at Dartmouth and Stanford, raising their hands high Tracy Flick style and asking questions about “HOW WILL MY SON MAKE FRIENDS HERE?” while their child was slumped to the side taking a nap. Lady, chill, it’s not about you. I especially loved the dialogue by parents who talk like they themselves work in the admissions offices (ex. “I know for a fact that XXX got your sister in to Princeton”), even though when they applied most of these universities were letting one out of every three applicant in. The main take away from me was that parents should focus on the kid in front of them rather than wishing for someone else, and for students to take a moment to truly reflect on what will make a satisfying and meaningful college experience that will contribute to their growth and happiness. Of course, that’s easier said than done. All in all, I couldn’t put this novel down, and the first few chapters were especially hilarious that I laughed out loud. Thanks and congrats so much for your debut novel and hope to see more of your writing in the future!

One last word about In This Together Media — which I think is a wonderful publishing organization (started on Kickstarter? How cool is that!) that supports authors who write novels that focus on girls’ empowerment! I was even excited to see one of my former colleague’s books on the site as a Amazon best seller! Keep up the great work! If you’re ever looking for non-fiction about college admissions, please let me know! I’d love to work with you!

Suzy Lee Weiss: Where Do I Even Start

Ahhhh spring. The smell of fresh blossoms and warm winds fill the air, and along with them comes the long awaited college admissions decisions. The hype was as crazy as ever with “record breaking” admit rates at many schools, but this year the media buzz surrounded one young woman from PA who wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal to all of the schools that rejected her.

Suzy Lee Weiss’s piece, “To (All) the Colleges that Rejected Me”

I honestly don’t even know where to start with this piece. I watched a t.v. interview of her where she claimed that it was satire and she was trying to make a point, and oh boy, did she. I found her “point” to be offensive, mean spirited, and frankly deaf to her own privilege. She does not mention anywhere in her op-ed that she was able to publish this because her sister worked at the WSJ, and her parents also had a lavish spread in the WSJ of their beautiful home a year or so ago.

For this young lady, who knows nothing about the admissions process beyond her 6 months of writing up an application, to accuse schools of only accepting those who have had “sob stories” or “challenges” for the sake of diversity, is beyond absurd. For her to go after Native American students, children of gay parents, students who do volunteer work, is just pathetic. I am frankly glad that so many schools saw her for exactly what she was. Average. Boring. Would not contribute much to a campus community. In the admissions offices where I worked, there were many applicants who would end up in the DENY pile because they were, frankly, just average. The news media freaking out over her 4.0+ GPA and 2000+ SATs and “internship as a page in the U.S. Senate” made me chuckle. At Stanford and Dartmouth I saw tens of THOUSANDS of profiles like that. Honestly, it does not even make me blink or think twice to hit delete on a file like that. I am not saying that to scare students, but I just want them to understand that simply getting good grades and test scores and doing an easy internship (sorry, I’ve seen those pages and sure you wear a geeky jacket, but you aren’t doing much) won’t get you in to the college of your dreams. Suzy was confused – “be yourself” isn’t a formula for success when you are just a boring individual without much to contribute, and you react to your failure by blaming everyone else except for yourself. Pathetic. Get a life girl!

I don’t want to focus too much on Suzy, because I think the real pain that some students who did get into colleges by writing about difficult experiences my feel like they don’t deserve to be at their dream school. I had a lot of times during my first year of college when I just didn’t think I belonged at my school. I thought everyone was smarter than me, and I thought I was an admission mistake. It took me a while to figure out that a lot of my friends thought so too. Especially for my friends who were coming from first generation backgrounds or people who didn’t know a lot of college graduates in their communities back home…this was a huge transition to attend a Ivy League school far away from home. I wish that universities did a better job figuring out ways to support students who are non-traditional and don’t fit in to the stereotype of the traditional Ivy-Leaguer…but I take some comfort in knowing that we can always find each other and support our friends. If you are Native American, if you did grow up with two moms, if you did start your own non-profit, own that experience, and don’t let negative Nancies who can’t get their own act together get in the way of your success. I certainly would want to be your classmate and NOT Suzy’s.

I saw that she was admitted to University of Michigan in her t.v. interview, and I hope that she has a good 4 years in college learning about herself and the world around her.

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!

Education Arms Race: Don’t Spend $2M on Tutoring to Get In to Harvard…Oh Asians…

Sharing a little bit of crazy sensationalism today…apparently a Hong Kong family paid $2 million dollars for private admissions consulting in the hopes of their son’s admission to Harvard. Big Fail. He didn’t get in…and now there’s a law suit over the $$.

Remember, no private consultant can guarantee your admission to Harvard. Money or no money.

My father also sent me this gem regarding high power celebrity tutoring in Hong Kong. I love how the comments section has students celebrating that it’s no longer pop starts and movie actors that are in the spot light…but tutors. I suppose that’s one way of saying that education is honored in Asia…but mostly I think it’s just crazy. These tutors have tv shows and have fan clubs…what?

I’m so glad that my parents didn’t pressure me to kill my self over grades and test scores…and neither should y’all! If you need 100 hours of tutoring a week to get into these schools…you probably shouldn’t be going there, because you can find a school that is better suited for your academic needs and goals…but that’s just my two cents. Trust me, you don’t want to go to college and have to have an army of tutors helping you all the time…enjoy college! Relax everyone…please stop perpetuating Asian stereotypes by going crazy with the academics! (Although I recognize that these articles are about Asians…but I know there’s crazy tutoring in NYC and the Bay Area too with Asian Americans!)

Enjoy a pic of my young dad holding me as a baby:)