Opinion: Assessing the Broad Picture of Asian-American Achievement - Higher Education
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Opinion: Assessing the Broad Picture of Asian-American Achievement

by Michael Honda

When it comes to acquiring a college degree, there is a general assumption that Asian-Americans do it best. This is an erroneous assumption because many Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) subgroups fall far short of this assumed standard, with substantial numbers never graduating high school or college. It is also a dangerous assumption because this model-minority myth prevents the provision of public and private resources designated specifically for minority-serving institutions (MSIs), exacerbating a deleterious and downward spiral among underperforming AAPI subgroups.

Granted, the assumption has some truth to it. College graduation rates among Asian-Americans rank highest among all ethnic groups, at 65 percent, followed by Whites at 59 percent. The only racial/ethnic group, furthermore, to not see their young men falling behind their predecessors in postsecondary attainment is Asian-Americans. 

Look a little deeper, however, and a divergent trend is equally pervasive among AAPIs. According to a report published last month by the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, the majority of members of Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong communities living in America, age 25 and older, have only a high school degree or less. Only 12 to13 percent of them have a bachelor’s degree or more. The same problem exists among Tongan, Samoan, Guamanian and native Hawaiian communities.  

Large sectors of the AAPI population, in fact, suffer from soaring secondary school dropout rates and low college completion and participation rates. These low educational attainment rates correlate with high unemployment rates, spiraling AAPI subgroups further into poverty. The unemployment rates of poorer-performing Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians are three to five times greater than those of many eastern and southern Asians. Tongan-Americans, for example, who maintain the highest unemployment rate among all AAPI subgroups at nearly 16 percent, have some of the highest secondary school dropout rates and lowest college-completion rates.  

So how do we fix this problem? Much of the solution is in ensuring adequate resources and representation. Since many AAPI-serving institutions are not recognized as minority-serving institutions, consequently, they are not incorporated into MSI-specific initiatives that would ensure access to federally allocated funds and foundation-led forums on best practices and strategies. To fix this, a clearer definition of MSIs that includes AAPIs is necessary so these institutions can gain better access to critical resources. Additionally, more resources dedicated to college-level, English-language learning and developmental reading are essential. Nearly half of all AAPI community college students enroll in developmental reading courses with another 40 percent requiring an English-language course, more than any other racial/ethnic group.

AAPIs will be better equipped to pursue and complete education degrees if they are better represented in leadership positions inside and outside the school system. AAPI students account for nearly 4 percent of total primary and secondary enrollment and AAPIs make up 2 percent of teaching positions — a discrepancy that makes cultural and linguistic barriers more problematic.  The disproportionately low percentage of AAPIs serving in high school and college leadership positions — 0.6 percent serve as public school principals and 0.9 percent as college presidents — increases the likelihood that AAPI-specific concerns will remain unaddressed.

Increased AAPI representation in school teaching and leadership positions is critical if we want to improve AAPI high school and college completion rates. But visible AAPI leadership outside the school is equally important. Like the young African-Americans who were inspired by Barack Obama’s ascendency to the presidency, AAPIs must also have role models in leadership positions. More work must be done to inspire young AAPIs to pursue higher education because AAPIs account for only 2.3 percent of senior executive positions in the public sector (a figure Obama boosted by nominating three AAPIs to his cabinet) and only 1.5 percent of Fortune 500 board seats in the private sector 

Ridding our educational system of these race-related equity gaps will take time and effort, but it is possible. As a former educator for 30 years, this is a lifelong goal of mine. By helping vulnerable minority groups pursue and complete higher education, we simultaneously address socioeconomic disparities and racial inequalities, increase the competitiveness of America’s work force, increase our tax base, and provide sustainable alternatives to the ill-fated options that youth tilt toward todayWhen it comes to acquiring a college degree, there is a general assumption that Asian-Americans do it best. This is an erroneous assumption because many Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) subgroups fall far short of this assumed standard, with substantial numbers never graduating high school or college. It is also a dangerous assumption because this model-minority myth prevents the provision of public and private resources designated specifically for minority-serving institutions (MSIs), exacerbating a deleterious and downward spiral among underperforming AAPI subgroups.

Granted, the assumption has some truth to it. College graduation rates among Asian-Americans rank highest among all ethnic groups, at 65 percent, followed by Whites at 59 percent. The only racial/ethnic group, furthermore, to not see their young men falling behind their predecessors in postsecondary attainment is Asian-Americans. 

Look a little deeper, however, and a divergent trend is equally pervasive among AAPIs. According to a report published last month by the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, the majority of members of Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong communities living in America, age 25 and older, have only a high school degree or less. Only 12 to13 percent of them have a bachelor’s degree or more. The same problem exists among Tongan, Samoan, Guamanian and native Hawaiian communities.  

Large sectors of the AAPI population, in fact, suffer from soaring secondary school dropout rates and low college completion and participation rates. These low educational attainment rates correlate with high unemployment rates, spiraling AAPI subgroups further into poverty. The unemployment rates of poorer-performing Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians are three to five times greater than those of many eastern and southern Asians. Tongan-Americans, for example, who maintain the highest unemployment rate among all AAPI subgroups at nearly 16 percent, have some of the highest secondary school dropout rates and lowest college-completion rates.  

So how do we fix this problem? Much of the solution is in ensuring adequate resources and representation. Since many AAPI-serving institutions are not recognized as minority-serving institutions, consequently, they are not incorporated into MSI-specific initiatives that would ensure access to federally allocated funds and foundation-led forums on best practices and strategies. To fix this, a clearer definition of MSIs that includes AAPIs is necessary so these institutions can gain better access to critical resources. Additionally, more resources dedicated to college-level, English-language learning and developmental reading are essential.  Nearly half of all AAPI community college students enroll in developmental reading courses with another 40 percent requiring an English-language course, more than any other racial/ethnic group.

AAPIs will be better equipped to pursue and complete education degrees if they are better represented in leadership positions inside and outside the school system. AAPI students account for nearly 4 percent of total primary and secondary enrollment and AAPIs make up 2 percent of teaching positions — a discrepancy that makes cultural and linguistic barriers more problematic.  The disproportionately low percentage of AAPIs serving in high school and college leadership positions — 0.6 percent serve as public school principals and 0.9 percent as college presidents — increases the likelihood that AAPI-specific concerns will remain unaddressed.

Increased AAPI representation in school teaching and leadership positions is critical if we want to improve AAPI high school and college completion rates. But visible AAPI leadership outside the school is equally important. Like the young African-Americans who were inspired by Barack Obama’s ascendency to the presidency, AAPIs must also have role models in leadership positions. More work must be done to inspire young AAPIs to pursue higher education because AAPIs account for only 2.3 percent of senior executive positions in the public sector (a figure Obama boosted by nominating three AAPIs to his cabinet) and only 1.5 percent of Fortune 500 board seats in the private sector.

Ridding our educational system of these race-related equity gaps will take time and effort, but it is possible. As a former educator for 30 years, this is a lifelong goal of mine. By helping vulnerable minority groups pursue and complete higher education, we simultaneously address socioeconomic disparities and racial inequalities, increase the competitiveness of America’s work force, increase our tax base, and provide sustainable alternatives to the ill-fated options that youth tilt toward today.

We can only do this if we look past the assumptions we hold, dig deep for better data that better represents our reality and act quickly on that data to correct any disparities. On this, much work awaits. 

— U.S. Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.) is the chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. 

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