For over four decades, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have been regarded as a “model minority.” While many embrace this popular image–that they are academically and economically successful when compared with other racial groups–it is largely false.
In fact, the model minority designation heralded upon the AAPI community in 1966 had less to do with celebrating student achievement, and had more to do with reinforcing negative stereotypes of African-American students as underachievers at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Considering that we continue to apply this image to the AAPI community many years after the inception of this stereotype suggests that the general populace remains comfortable with this distorted comparison.
In terms of access and success in higher education, there is simply no model minority. Of course one can easily identify data that show AAPI students as having a competitive advantage over other racial groups, with higher grade point averages, standardized test scores, rates of majors in fields such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and more advanced degrees (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003; U.S. Census Bureau, 2003). But using these points alone to categorize all AAPI students as a model minority blurs a more nuanced perspective of AAPI students’ educational experience. Disaggregated data on the AAPI population reveals much heterogeneity, with 48 different ethnic groups that occupy positions along the full range of the socioeconomic spectrum. Hence, to aggregate the educational experiences of all AAPIs is inaccurate, misleading, and has adverse effects on those who are underprivileged and struggle daily.
A recent report by the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education (CARE), “Federal Higher Education Policy Priorities and the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community,” aims to raise awareness about the unique educational experiences and needs of the AAPI student population. The report exposes the invisible and misunderstood challenges these students face in higher education, and subsequently in the workforce.
Three critical issues facing AAPIs in the CARE report include: education and workforce development needs, AAPIs in the community college sector, and AAPIs and minority-serving institution legislation.
Education and Workforce Development Needs: Despite high educational attainment rates for AAPIs in the aggregate, large sectors of the AAPI population suffer from steep high school drop-out rates, low rates of college participation, and even lower college completion rates. As a result, the unemployment rates of Pacific Islanders (Tongans, Samoans, and Native Hawaiians) and Southeast Asians (Hmong, Laotian, Cambodians, and Vietnamese) are three to five times greater than those of Japanese, Sri Lankans, Thai, Chinese, Asian Indians, Filipinos and Koreans. Additionally, like other racial/ethnic minority groups, many AAPIs still receive lower wages, even with the same qualifications.
AAPIs in the Community College Sector: The prevailing perception is that AAPIs are most likely to attend highly selective, four-year institutions, but data confirm that the vast majority of these students enroll in readily accessible and affordable four-year colleges and public two-year colleges. The largest sector (47.3%) of AAPI college enrollees attend community college. This trend is expected to continue with AAPI enrollment at community colleges outpacing growth in all other sectors of higher education.
AAPIs and Minority-Serving Designation: The College Cost and Reduction and Access Act of 2007 added the designation of Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution, which expanded the capacity of institutions serving AAPI student populations. Like community colleges, these institutions have made great strides in educating underserved AAPI populations. At present, they’re serving some of the highest concentrations of AAPI students, thereby offering a much-needed resource to the AAPI community.
A considerable amount of what is known about the AAPI student population has been heavily influenced by stereotypes and distortions, not the complete facts. The three critical issues mentioned above reflect areas in which discourse around AAPI students can begin.
If key policy issues continue to go unchecked, the “model minority” myth and the impression that AAPI students face no challenges in access to quality education or problems associated with their pursuit of a college degree will prevail. To advance this dialogue, educators and workforce development leaders must engage in purposeful action to align education policy with the reality of students from this racial community.
Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., is the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, an independent nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world. Robert Teranishi is an associate professor of higher education at New York University.