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Unmet needs of a ‘model’ minority

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Esther Cepeda
August 4, 2011
— They are known among educators as the “model minority”—the “good students” with disproportionately high enrollment in elite universities, often to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

These are the students that teachers never worry about. Yet researchers are now coming to the conclusion that Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) also have education challenges that deserve attention—not the least of which is realizing they are not all academic superstars.


The reality is that a large proportion of AAPI students are from very low-income backgrounds—many of them are recent immigrants and non-native speakers of English—and are the first in their families to attend college. According to an analysis of the National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey, Asians have greater financial need than other racial groups when taking into account the expected family contribution and total aid. Other research has shown that AAPI families, across the board, are wary of taking on student loans even when there is substantial need.


But because most policy and academic literature focuses almost exclusively on the challenges that Hispanics and African-Americans face in graduating from high school and attaining a college degree, AAPI students who also need assistance with those same goals are routinely overlooked.


This is hard to understand based on broad statistics. For instance, if you look at the results of the ACT high-school achievement test, which almost half of all high-school graduates took in 2010, 39 percent of all Asian/Pacific Islanders met the college-readiness benchmarks in English, reading, math and science compared to 30 percent of whites, 11 percent of Hispanics and 4 percent of African-Americans.


College completion rates in 2010 showed that approximately 67 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander first-time undergraduates attained a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent within six years, compared with 60 percent of whites, 48 percent of Hispanics, 42 percent of African-Americans and 40 percent of American Indians/Alaska Natives.


In a just-released report, the US2010 project, which tracks changes in American society in the recent past, documents that African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans attend America’s worst-performing K-12 schools, while whites and Asians dominate the top schools.


It also points out that Asians have higher average incomes and lower unemployment rates than all other groups and have maintained this advantage over time despite the fact that a higher percentage of Asian-Americans live in poverty than do Caucasians.


So what’s the problem? It’s that these numbers don’t adequately reflect the diversity of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) who come from different countries and comprise 48 different ethnic groups with distinct languages, cultures and varying education and income levels.


North Seattle Community College President Mark Mitsui drove that point home to the audience at a recent news conference launching the Asian Pacific Islander American Association of Colleges and Universities.


“You have to disaggregate the data,” Mitsui said, “When you begin to pull that data apart, you see which students are not progressing.”


Despite high educational attainment rates for Asians as a whole, large segments of this population—specifically, lower-income Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians—suffer from high secondary school drop-out rates and low rates of college participation, according to a 2010 report by the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education. As a result, nearly half of the Pacific Islander and Southeast Asian students who are able to get into two- and four-year colleges never receive their degrees.


“We have to make sure that we improve the access to and quality of post secondary opportunities for these students,” Ruby G. Moy, president and CEO of the newly established Asian Pacific Islander American Association of Colleges and Universities, told me. “Many Asian students are at the top of their fields, but there is a gap—and a great need to level the playing field. The needs of Hispanic and African-American students are great, but Asian students also must be included.”


Knowing the diversity of challenges, it seems incredible that, as a group, AAPI students are doing so well. We should celebrate those accomplishments, but begin to forget all our preconceived notions about Asian students not needing any interventions or supports in our educational system—the success of the youngest portion of the fastest-growing racial group in America depends on it.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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