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Overcoming a Cultural Aversion to FINANCIAL AID

Reluctance to ask for financial aid forces many Asian students to make enrollment decisions based on college costs and affordability.

Dao Vang Tried convincing a Hmong woman to apply for financial aid before her son enrolled this semester at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Vang did not want them struggling to pay the entire $3,600 tuition bill themselves.

But the mother could not get past long-held fears about government. She confided in Vang a litany of facts about her family and income she did not want disclosed on a form for strangers to pore over. Eventually she said she would pay her son�s tuition herself although she wasn�t sure how.

�I couldn�t change her mind,� says Vang, coordinator of UWM�s Southeast Asian American Student Services. �Some parents I meet still see themselves as foreigners, even though they have lived in the United States for 20, 30 years. They don�t consider this country theirs.�

Nationally, Asian American students tend to rely on just themselves and their families to cover college costs, educators say, even though growing numbers of them qualify for government grants and other aid.

In the 2005-2006 academic year, for instance, 30.9 percent of Asian American freshmen came from families with annual household incomes of less than $40,000. By comparison, only 22.7 percent of all freshmen nationally had household incomes that low, according to an analysis of Asian American student characteristics and attitudes by University of California, Los Angeles, researchers.

The fact that substantial numbers of Asian American collegians are low-income runs counter to the popular but mistaken stereotype that all Asians are wealthy. The stereotype disregards the circumstances surrounding how some families came to this country. Many Southeast Asians, for example, fled war-torn Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam with little more than what they wore, settling for low-paying, hourly wage jobs in this country. It is not surprising that the 2000 Census showed that fewer than 10 percent of Americans of Cambodian, Hmong or Laotian descent age 25 or older hold a bachelor�s degree.

Low-income Asian Americans are less likely to attend college, educators say, and they�re more likely to drop out trying to earn tuition money for institutions they often don�t return to. �Full-time work is quite common,� says Dr. Peter Kiang, a professor of education and director of Asian American studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Vang says every semester, he loses students in good academic standing to jobs. �One semester out turns into two and suddenly the job makes them wonder, why go back to school?�

Southeast Asians aren�t alone among the working class. Kiang says many of his Chinese American students work at least one job, and their parents typically work in restaurants and other service-oriented jobs. UMB is a commuter campus, so students often cut costs by living at home.

�Academically, our students have options besides UMB, but not financially,� Kiang says.

UMB data show that roughly half of Chinese residents and about 40 percent of Vietnamese, the largest Asian subgroups in Boston, have household incomes of less than $25,000 annually. Yet only 32 percent of Asian Americans at UMB received financial aid in 2005- 2006, the lowest rate among all racial groups.

Indeed, among Asian American freshmen nationally, cost and affordability have grown more important in recent years in determining where they enroll. In 1972, only about 23 percent of Asian freshmen said receiving financial assistance was key to where they attended, but by 2005, that figure swelled to roughly 33 percent, according to a report by the UCLA researchers. Their findings were based on a multidecade compilation of data by UCLA�s Higher Education Research Institute, which annually surveys first-time freshmen at more than 600 four-year colleges and universities. The HERI data includes responses from more than 360,000 Asian Americans from 1971 to 2005.

The growing trend among Asian students to choose a university based on affordability defies the myth that the overwhelming majority flock to elite private schools and the Ivy League, says Dr. Mitchell Chang, a principal investigator among the UCLA researchers and an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. �Society�s overestimation of Asian Americans in the Ivy League is a lazy way of viewing the world.�

Chang and others say the parents of these students, regardless of whether they�re rich or poor, are often too steeped in traditional cultures of Asian countries to pursue financial help. To them, asking for it is akin to begging passers-by on the street for spare change � a shameful act that implies the parents failed to provide adequately for their children.

�These parents fear losing face,� says Anna Gonzalez, a former associate dean of students at the University of California, Irvine, as well as director of its Cross-Cultural Center. �They believe they should either look good or be invisible, nothing else. And, because so many kids are cultural negotiators for their parents, they usually fill out forms for their parents, like financial aid. But many parents don�t want to disclose their earnings to the kids.�

Adds Chang: �Some of these Asians would rather get together and pool their money than go to a bank for a loan; they�re so debtaverse.�

Chang says counselors at the high school and postsecondary level mistakenly assume Asian students �have it made,� stereotyping them all as high achievers and not offering financial aid outreach.

Whenever Gonzalez addressed parents at UCI orientations and other programs, she would mention her emigration from the Philippines at age 10, hoping that would make them comfortable enough to ask her questions. Some of them barely knew anything about college life. Gonzalez recalls a Vietnamese woman whose daughter worked in a science lab under her work-study arrangement. �I reassured the mom that the job was real. She couldn�t believe her daughter was on campus so many hours. The mom didn�t believe the school stayed open late. That shows you how no one tells Asian parents how college will work.�

Finding Solutions

Janet V�, who graduated this past spring from UMB, persevered through the daunting financial aid application process. She received a Pell Grant each of her four years. That, coupled with a small contribution from her Vietnamese immigrant parents who run a nail salon, meant she had to borrow only a few thousand dollars.

�But I had to do all the research myself,� V� says. �I got no support from anyone at my high school. A workshop would�ve been helpful. If I hadn�t been so determined to go to college, I might not have tried so hard to find a way to afford it.�

UMB student Rich Truong says many of his classmates could benefit from how-to workshops. �They�re taking five classes yet working two jobs. It doesn�t have to be that way.�

Like V�, Truong is American-born Vietnamese. Because his sister has worked as a financial aid counselor, Truong had the savvy to seek financial aid. His wage-earning parents couldn�t afford any of his college expenses, so he qualified for work-study on campus and a loan. A senior majoring in business management, he hopes to graduate next spring.

Educators consider Truong and V� exceptions among Southeast Asian Americans, who tend to be even more reluctant than other Asians to apply for financial help. Many of their elders fled Communist governments in the 1970s or more recently, and automatically assume that disclosing information to any government means it will be used against them. The refugees of that period also have bad memories of the myriad forms they had to fill out to secure jobs, housing and insurance when settling in the United States. More often than not, their applications resulted in bureaucratic logjams. Or, if misunderstandings occurred because of language differences, applications had to be resubmitted repeatedly, sometimes to no avail.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is anathema to many of these people, says UWM�s Vang. �They�re so intimidated by forms, they think filling one out means they will get deported.�

Gonzalez, who�s now associate vice chancellor for student affairs and director for intercultural relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says ethnic taunts pressure Asian Americans across the board �to do as much as possible on their own, be hidden and not seek financial help.�

Some of the most common taunts lie in the nicknames other students attach to schools using their initials. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance, is known as �Made in Taiwan.� Gonzalez, who worked at UCI�s Cross-Cultural Center for 14 years, says UCI, which is 44 percent Asian, is known as �University of Chinese Immigrants.� Such xenophobic nicknames not only unfairly imply an Asian invasion, she and others say, but they wrongfully suggest all Asians are alike. In 2006, only 33 percent of Asian Americans at UCI were Chinese, the others were Korean, Filipino and Vietnamese, to name a few.

Vang says students needing financial help often need other resources, too. At UWM, where financial aid applications and renewals are among

Vang�s top priorities, more than 75 percent of Southeast Asian students in 2007- 2008 received academic advising, tutoring or other services. Among other findings by Chang and his UCLA colleagues, nearly 20 percent of Asian freshmen in 2005 said they needed tutoring or remedial help in English � a statistic comparable to that of Hispanic freshmen and higher than those of other racial groups. �We�re unsure whether Asians were being overly modest or if they really need the help, but these kinds of statistics show how colleges need to offer services to find out the answers,� Chang says.

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