The AAPI Student Population in Context

A considerable amount of what is known about the AAPI student population has been heavily influenced by stereotypes and false perceptions, rather than by empirical evidence.4 The dominant narrative about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in higher education is that they are a model minority—a racial group with disproportionately high enrollment in highly selective, four-year institutions and such academic fields as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). When referring to underrepresented or disadvantaged students, much of the policy and academic literature focuses largely on "non-Asian" minorities, often omitting AAPI students altogether. These practices have largely gone unchecked in policy arenas, leaving the impression that AAPI students face no challenges in access to quality higher education or any problems associated with their pursuit of a college degree.

The reality is the prevailing model minority myth is inaccurate, misleading, and damaging for the AAPI population. Disaggregated data on the AAPI population reveal a wide range of demographic characteristics that are unlike any other racial group in America with regard to their heterogeneity. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the AAPI racial category consists of 48 different ethnic groups that occupy positions along the full range of the socioeconomic spectrum, from the poor and under-privileged, to the affluent and highly skilled. AAPIs also vary demographically with regard to language background, immigration history, culture, and religion.

Consider that while a significant proportion of immigrants from Asia come to the U.S. already highly educated, others enter the U.S. from countries that have provided only limited opportunities for educational and social mobility. Pacific Islanders, defined as people whose origins are Polynesia, Micronesia, or Melanesia, are a diverse pan-ethnic group in themselves, whose histories include such challenges as the struggle for sovereignty. Yet, these and other very unique circumstances are often overshadowed by being grouped with Asian Americans. Thus, while the AAPI population represents a single entity in certain contexts, such as for interracial group comparisons, it is equally important to understand the ways in which the demography of the population is comprised by a complex set of social realities for individuals and communities that fall within this category.

The complex demography of the AAPI population is also evident in their geographic distribution throughout the U.S. While there is a high degree of representation in California, New York, Washington, and Hawai'i, the Gulf Coast also has a number of communities with Southeast Asians and Filipinos, while pockets of the Midwest have a growing representation of Southeast Asians, South Asians, and East Asians. These residential patterns are a reflection of AAPI ethnic enclaves dispersed throughout the country. Thus, if there is any conclusion that can be drawn about the AAPI population, it is that they are an incredibly heterogeneous group of people, and there is simply no single narrative that can capture the range of educational experiences, opportunities, and outcomes they encounter.

Even a cursory review of the literature reveals an urgent need for more research and better sources of data that capture the social realities for AAPI individuals and communities. In existing higher education research, few studies have documented the campus experiences of AAPIs, adequately disaggregated data for AAPI subpopulations, or looked at AAPIs in different institutional contexts (community colleges, public four-year institutions, predominantly White versus predominantly AAPI or racially mixed institutions, and the for-profit sector). As reported by many scholars across many disciplines, AAPIs are, in many ways, invisible in policy debates, in educational research, and in the development of campus services and programs.5 The lack of attention to AAPIs in the workforce is equally problematic. There is a need for greater attention to identify how expanding higher education opportunities for AAPIs can positively impact workforce participation for the population. Specifically, higher education can respond not only to key areas of the workforce where AAPIs are underrepresented, but also to the need for AAPI leadership in the professions. What follows are relevant data for understanding the various realities that the AAPI population faces relative to higher education and workforce development.

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4 - Ibid.

5 - Ibid; S. Hune & K. Chan, "Educating Asian Pacific Americans: Struggles in Progress," in Asian Americans: Experiences and Perspectives, ed. T. Fong & L. Shinagawa (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2000); J. Park & R. Teranishi, "Asian American and Pacific Islander Serving Institutions: Historical Perspectives and Future Prospects," in Interdisciplinary Approaches to Understanding Minority Serving Institutions, ed. M. Gasman, B. Baez, & C. Turner (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008).