Attending College With Too Many Rich Kids

When I talk to California teenagers who are interested in attending college outside of the state, their preferred destination is usually the East Coast.

As a native Midwesterner it is disheartening that so many Californian teenagers dismiss so much of the country as simply real estate that makes flights from California to New York or Boston way too long.

While teens think they want to attend school in Boston or some tony East Coast community, I wonder if many of them would be happy if they did get their wish.

I’ve been mulling this over for quite some time, but I decided to write about my reservations because of a conversation that I had last night with a friend of mine. My friend’s daughter, who used to date my son in high school in San Diego, is a freshman at a very selective liberal arts college in Massachusetts.

In Your Face Wealth

Julia loves her professors and she likes her small classes. What the teenager, however, was unprepared for was the tremendous wealth of many of the students at the school.

Julia’s parents are well off. They live in a large house with a killer view of the San Diego downtown skyline, but Julia was stunned by the in-your-face wealth of many of the students. When she and some other classmates went to a Boston mall, for example, she went shopping at Forever 21, a popular discount clothing store for teens, and her classmates headed to Lord & Taylor. Her roommate wears Tiffany jewelry and the girls prefer Coach bags that can cost $400 or $500 a piece. These kids are tooling around in Mercedes and other expensive wheels.

California Universities vs. East Coast Schools

It’s not that there aren’t wealthy kids in California, but there doesn’t seem to be such a heavy concentration of them in any one place. The vast majority of teenagers in California, as well as in most states, attend public universities where there is a mix of students from different socio-economic backgrounds.  At UCLA and UC Berkeley, for example, 25% and 26% of undergraduates qualify for a Pell Grant, which is awarded to low and low-middle income families. In contrast, a measly 9% of Princeton undergrads receive Pell Grants.

Out here in California — and once again in most of the rest of the country — we don’t have a tradition of boarding schools, eating clubs, secret societies and the other trappings of wealth that keep the rich segregated from most Americans.

I’m wondering what other people think about attending the private East Coast colleges and universities which serve as magnets to the ultra wealthy? Would your children want to be surrounded by these pampered students? I know mine wouldn’t.

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  1. My son attended a mid-sized university in Connecticut and found the lack of socio economic diversity a major drawback to the well rounded education he was seeking. He liked his classes which were small and well taught, but socially he was seeking a more diverse crowd. He commented often that the kids all dressed the same,with everyone trying desperately to fit in. We joked that, with his beard and lack of salmon shorts, he was the diversity advertised in the college literature. This herd behavior made it impossible for him to really get to know anyone on more than a superficial level. ( He had recently completed a gap year, working in central America with some of the poorest people in the world, so was admittedly not your typical freshman.) He gave it a year and ultimately decided to transfer to our state university where I believe he will thrive.

    Side note: I should have known the school was not a good fit when, during orientation, I had to walk away from a parent who was espousing his beliefs that no one should receive any financial aid. He believed people should have to pull their own weight and no one should ever be offered a hand up. UUUGGH!

  2. Hello,
    My brother went is a freshman at Yale & i am considering to apply for entrance in Fall 2013. We went to a french high school and I just wanted to react to some comments on here.. You make rich kids sounds like monster and it does not seems right. For example, my parents can be considered as wealthy but that does not mean that we’re going to act snobby and throw sticks at people , it depends on people’s manners ! You complain about “discrimination” from rich kids but you are just doing the same to them !
    James K.

  3. Your analogy between a UC school and Princeton is a poor one. You compared a public school system to a private ivy league. You need to instead compare apples to apples. Compare a UC school to a SUNY school. Or compare Stanford to Princeton. Of course there are going to be way more low to middle income families at ANY large public school vs. a smaller private college.

    Your student’s example is a huge over generalization based on one student’s perception. I went to an ‘elite’ ivy league school on the east coast. It had need blind admissions and an incredible amount of diversity both economically and racially. My roommate happened to be Puerto Rican, first generation college student who worked full-time as a bank teller in addition to being a full-time, 19-year-old college student. Does that mean that everyone on my campus was working full-time in a bank? No. Just as I’m sure not everyone on campus in the story above has a $500 Coach bag.

    (It also seems pretty shallow to judge a teenager by the clothes they wear or cars they drive. Just because some of these people have money and are used to a certain life style does not mean they are bad, unkind, or snobby kids.)

    There are plenty of trappings of wealth in California that keep rich people segregated from the rest of the Americans around them. How about the fact that you have next to no public transportation so that lower income kids (and adults) have a hard time leaving their own neighborhoods. You have more gated communities than I see on the east coast. And you have beautiful hills that create topographical separation between the wealthy and lower income. I’ve spent plenty time in Beverly Hills and the Berkeley Hills and know that there are just as many privileged kids running around there too.

  4. I read this article and am thinking “woman you are totally off base”. You make it sound like the northeast schools are flaunting wealth. Sure there are rich kids there but not like you are making it out to be. Ivy’s and a handful of New England liberal arts colleges will have a higher proportion of rich kids but it get normal after that. My son goes to a large university in the northeast and there are kids from all walks of life. If anything, my son is very happy with the balance of the demographics. Sure there are kids with fancy cars but also kids that are heavily in debt. If you are concerned, do the tours, look around, ask around.

  5. Here is what I think … if your child has the grades and the passion to be accepted into a school, no matter where it is, where there is department or professor who is going to inspire them to do something remarkable – like find a cure for any cancer – get us off of fossil fuels – make every citizen’s life healthy and affordable – then they should go to that school. Even if their roommate spends $500.00 on a pocketbook.

  6. My daughter, probably considered one of the rich and entitled at her inner city high school, is learning the benefits of exposure to different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds in her high school. She is very much in the minority there. I hope I am teaching her to look beyond the surface in her choice of friends.
    There will always be those with more money, as well as those with less around us. Your daughter’s friend must accept this, but more importantly, work on her choice of friends.
    “but it’s their attitude and sense of entitlement that is a turn off. They act wealthy even if they aren’t. ”
    We do indeed get to choose our frends. In the college atmosphere, this is one of life’s biggest lessons. Even in small colleges there are all kinds of individuals. If these kids act this way, why choose to be around them?

  7. My son got information mailed to him from Yale, probably because of his high test scores. It was a laugh because the chemistry department was 90% white males and who would want to go to a school where people aspire to ‘Skull and Bones’. Of course, in reading thru, it looked like we would pay a pretty small amount for him to attend, which gives one pause. Class is the unspoken secret in America; we are not all alike and why pretend we are?

  8. Tom – Thanks for your comment and for being long-time reader of my college blog. I appreciate what you’re saying — some of these kids aren’t as rich as they appear, but it’s their attitude and sense of entitlement that is a turn off. They act wealthy even if they aren’t.

    Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  9. Patricia,

    I agree that class is the unspoken secret in America. As for Yale sending your son information, be wary. Elite schools are sending out obscene amounts of literature to smart students — even those they have no intention of accepting — because they want to be in a position to reject ever more teenagers. By doing this, their bond ratings can go up. Sick, but true.

    You are right that the financial aid is amazing, but very few low- and middle-income students get accepted.

    Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  10. I enjoy your posts very much, I am a long time subscriber. I realize this is a prevalent issue, often unspoken. I think an important point to make to our children is perspective. That is, one cannot make an assumption of anyone’s wealth based on what car they drive, where they shop, or where they go to school. We do not have access to their tax return, their credit report, or net worth statement. I feel there are many parents that are hurting (relatively) and this has not “trickled” down to their children. Many of these kids charge on their parents cards, and never are in touch with true cost. I tell my daughter to not judge anyone’s character based on outward appearances, and that she cannot assume her friend is “loaded” because she drives a BMW. The world of wealth is changing in America, and the sooner our children can put this in perspective the better. Thank you for your blog, they are always informative.