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





See, Admissions Deans and Officers are Human…Dealing with Aftermath of Boston Bombings

I can’t even start to describe the fear and sadness I felt, along with my classmates and friends in the Boston area, over the recent bombings during the Boston Marathon. The insecurity felt in the entire city echoed throughout the cable news and social networks was so intense. I was on my iPhone with many of my friends who live in Watertown, who heard the shots only a mile or so away from their apartment.

There aren’t any adequate words to show the sorrow I have for the families of the victims and injured. It was surreal to see my old neighborhood splashed across the news screen as if it was a movie.

While all of the searches for the suspect was going on, Harvard University was supposed to be hosting the admitted students from the Class of 2017. I’m not trying to belittle the situation or the event. I am sure it was crazy to be in Boston, but I wanted to highlight how amazing the admissions staff of Harvard was in responding to the need of students who flew in from all parts of the world and then were stuck in the airport. I remember during my college days going on buses to receive admitted students, and how the energy was electric and so exciting. I am amazed at how the Dean, who went HIMSELF to the airport, and other staff members took care of many of the students and cared for them while the search continued outside near Watertown.

What a great way for a community to show how they take care of their students, and it’s also heart-warming to see that current students came online using social networks and media to make new students feel welcome!

I know that there must be disappointed students out there all over the nation who didn’t get into their top choice schools….and it’s tough. I get that. I got rejected from seven out of eight schools I applied to! I just want you to know; however, that admission officers are not EVIL. They are people, doing their job, trying to find the students that are the right fit for the institutions where they work. We also get really sad when we are not able to admit the students that we love as well…and I would sometimes have to excuse myself during a committee meeting during admissions and cry about a student that I really wanted to admit. It happens. We are human…and I think that Dean Fitzsimmons and his staff showed that last weekend.

Bravo Harvard!

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.

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:)


My Mom is a Panda Mom

I’m a little late in commenting on Amy Chua, the Yale law professor who got famous by writing a memoir about raising her two daughters in the Asian way.

The book raised a lot of questions about how to raise successful children (success in this book is defined by getting into Ivy league schools and having straight As) and whether or not there is a superior way to accomplish such goals – Western or Eastern?

I was recently talking to one of my close friends from college who met Amy Chua in person. She told me that the encounter was a bit odd, because Chua was mildly narcissistic and just kept saying that her daughter is a second year at Harvard. This coming from the mother who said that she was trying to poke fun at her parenting…

I’m not going to write about whether or not I think her way of parenting is right or wrong, but it did spur more media attention and lead to more stereotyping of Asian Americans. I find that problematic. I wanted to share what kind of mom I had growing up, and the kinds of parents I saw during the admissions process (good ones and bad ones).

I would not know what a “tiger mom” is like, because I was raised by a “Panda Mom.” What is a Panda Mom, you ask? Well, think of a Panda – cuddly, cute, eats bamboo (well scratch that last one). My mom never pushed me to do well in school. She never forced me to do any activities. She never told me I was fat. When I came back with mediocre grades from school, her response was to take a quick glance at the report card and say, “I think you can do better next time! If you’re happy with a B, that’s great! Ok, time for dinner!” There was never any screaming or fighting over grades. I did go to Japanese School on Saturdays. I also did a few years of Kumon (pure terror and misery….but it made me good at mental math for a while).

My mom worked full time my whole life – she still works – and she was not focused on small details of my academic life. If I would come home from school with a permission slip for a field trip, she would sometimes respond, “I’m busy right now, can you sign it yourself?” In a more extreme example, she started to send me off on a plane to visit my grandparents in Japan alone when I was about nine years old. I would hop on the plane from my hometown, transfer planes in LAX, land in Tokyo, and then take the bus for three hours and then a train for another 45 minutes to reach my final destination. I was nine.

Basically, my Panda mom trusted me to be able to take care of myself and make my own decisions. Nowadays, I meet so many high school and college students and EVEN GROWN ADULTS WITH TWO DEGREES FROM HARVARD who do not know how to choose between two options. (There is even a NYTimes article on this) They. drive. me. crazy. (I don’t even like people who can’t decide what to eat off a restaurant menu.) I am not a parent so I can’t comment on other people’s parenting, but all I can say is that I’m so happy that my parents treated me with respect and let me make my own choices. I still ended up going to two great schools for college and grad school and will start a career in September that is my DREAM. No one pushed me to get up in the morning, do my homework, or excel in activities. So, I was left to really consider what I liked and spend my energy doing things I really enjoyed.

So many of the kids I see nowadays are OVER SCHEDULED, EXHAUSTED, and just plain tired-looking. All the time. I feel sorry for them. I also feel sad for Asian American families – even though I know they mean well – who push their kids to do piano, violin, chess, SAT prep class, Chinese School, science competition etc…and then they all look very similar to each other in the application process for college. I don’t think the parents even realize what they are doing to their kids. Do their kids even enjoy these activities? Do they even ask their kids? Sad.

Switching over to these parents in the college process…you have no idea how many times I would get calls from moms who say things like “Um…I need your help. I’m on page 6 of the Common Application trying to fill out information for my son.” HUH!? WHAT ARE YOU DOING LADY…STEP AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER. Your son needs to do that on his own…because if he doesn’t do this on his own, he wont be able to do anything on his own in the future. Then, some unfortunate woman has to marry him and take care of him for the rest of his life. No one wants that. Stop filling out your son’s application.


Our Dean would make us personally take these calls from distraught parents who scream at us about how we made a mistake and that their precious perfect children should have been admitted. Uh. NO. The admissions office never changes it’s mind, first of all, and no, you calling and screaming at us will never make a difference. I would always respond calmly (biting my tongue) and say something like, “Congratulations, it sounds like your son has some really amazing opportunities, and I wish him the best of his luck on his educational journey.” But on the inside, this is what I wanted to spit back at these parents:


So, that was kind of a mean rant. On the other hand, I do feel sad for these kids because it’s like nothing they ever do is enough for their high achieving parents who try to live through them. Finding a good fit is more important than the brand name of the school or the rank. Also, if 92% of all applications are rejected from places like Stanford…then you’re in good company, and there is nothing wrong with your child. Lastly, this is NOT your place to be disappointed. Let your children process the disappointment, but then quickly shift gears to celebrating what they have accomplished!

To tell you the truth, I applied to eight colleges back in 2002-03 and got rejected from seven of them. My mom was there every time I opened the thin envelope..and she never said one mean thing to me. Her response every time was “the next one will be better.”

Thanks Mom. (This picture is of my Panda Mom the day before she gave birth to me. See, she’s a calm lady.)

Financial Aid- Key Definitions and Terms

Here are a few of the key terms that you should be familiar with when you apply for aid:

FAFSA – Free Application for Federal Student Aid

  • This is an online financial aid application. The form will ask questions about parental income, investments, assets, property etc. Schools will use these figures to determine what dollar amount is reasonable for your family to contribute to your college education. Parents can use last year’s tax forms to file the FAFSA. It’s best to use the most updated information, but if your parents, like mine, are self-employed and had tax filing extensions, then use the figures from last year. There is always an opportunity to update the figures after admission decisions have been released.


  • Student Aid Report- generated from the information that you submit to FAFSA.

CSS Profile

  • A College Board service that “the member colleges, universities, graduate and professional schools, and scholarship programs use the information collected on PROFILE to help them award nonfederal student aid funds.”
  • Many private colleges/universities will require families fill out this additional form in order to get a better picture of your family’s financial background.

Parent Contribution

  • After the university financial aid office receives your FAFSA/CSS Profile (or any other require document depending on the school), they will calculate the amount that your family can reasonably contribute to your education.
  • This amount can adjust from year to year depending on your parent’s financial situation. For example, if your family owns a small business like a liquor store or a restaurant, the income can vary from year to year. The financial aid will reflect these changes as well. If one parent loses a job, which we saw a lot in the office last year, adjustments will also be made to your award amount.
  • They key really is to communicate with the financial aid office. If you’re turning in forms late, TELL THE OFFICE. Yes, it’s best if everything is turned in on time, but keep in constant contact with the financial aid office.
  • PLEASE always be polite to financial aid officers! Unlike admission officers that work with incoming students only, financial aid officers are working with 4 years of students, and if they also have graduate students in their portfolio, even more students. They are always willing to help, but if families are aggressive, rude or demanding, it doesn’t help the situation.

Student Contribution

  • Many schools require students to also contribute to their education. I think this is a wonderful idea, because it gives students a chance to work and gain experience that will prepare them for future careers. Many hiring managers complain that recent graduates who have no work experience expect to find positions with competitive firms. Yes, high grades are important, but please don’t graduate from college not having ever worked! Work-study is available for students at my institutions, and these jobs can vary from lab-work with Biology professors, to working in Admissions (like me) to being residential advisors (RAs). Earning your own money to pay for trips home, going out to restaurants and movies, and spending money can be teach students to be independent and understand the value of money. If student’s pay for school, it’s less likely that they’ll cut class too…I hope. One of my friends calculated that an hour of class at my college would cost around $280 or so, if they divided up their tuition…! After hearing that, I almost never missed classes!

Federal Loans

  • The Federal Government provides universities/colleges with an amount of money that the university distributes to students in the form of loans. Federal loans (as of 2010) have fixed interest rates and tend to have lower interest rates than private loans. There are set amounts that families can borrow with Federal Loans.

Private Loans

  • Private Banks also issue educational loans, if your family has exhausted government loans from the university, then one option is to apply for an educational loan through a bank. Many times these are “variable APR” which means that the interest can change from time to time, and many private loans require you to start paying monthly fees to cover the interest.

Grants and Scholarships

  • Universities have a “Financial Aid” budget that they will use to aid students. If these come in the form of “grants and scholarships” – it’s money that the student doesn’t have to pay back. This is the best form of financial aid! Before 2008, top ranked universities were rolling out generous and ambitious plans to help low and middle-income families (Harvard’s 10% plan, Stanford’s under $100,000/$60,000 plan, Dartmouth’s under $75,000 plan). These three programs are some of the most generous in the country.
  • Unfortunately, with the recent recession many universities lost a large percentage of their endowment, and financial aid was in danger of being on the cutting block…so check to see the most recent plans at the schools concerning financial aid.
  • Scholarships – check out my previous post on scholarship options for Asian American students! The more students can take advantage of these programs, the better!

Need Based Aid

  • This type of scholarship is based solely on your family’s ability to pay. The more your need, the more your financial aid. Most highly selective schools use this model.

Need Blind Admissions

  • This type of admissions – practiced by the 40 or schools that have strong financial aid budgets and large endowments, means that the student’s chance of admissions is not related to the family’s ability to pay. This is a wonderful program, because as an admission officer, I wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not a student’s family could afford to pay for the education, because I knew that the financial aid package from the school would be generous enough to cover the need.
  • Meets 100% of Need – schools that practice Need Blind Admissions guarantee that the institution will meet 100% of the family’s need. So, remember the calculator of (Cost of Education – Estimated Parental and Student Contribution = Financial Need)? Under this program, the school will (with a combination of scholarships, grants, and loans) meet the gap between what the family can pay and what the total cost of the school is.

Merit Scholarships

  • Merit scholarships can be based on GPA, SAT scores, leadership, nominations by teachers, debate, sports or anything that makes a student stand out in the applicant pool!
  • This can be in addition to the types of aid mentioned above – and can enhance your financial aid package. If you think your family is in a position where they may not get a lot of “need based” aid, then it’s a great idea to research schools that have strong merit aid programs – like Duke, Vanderbilt, etc.  Remember that many of these merit based scholarships have separate applications, additional essays, or early deadlines!
  • (Many schools use this as a “yield-tool” to lure competitive, top-priority students away from peer institutions that don’t offer merit scholarships)