Model Minority Myth Mucking Up Asian-American College Pursuits

When it comes to acquiring a college degree, there is a general assumption that Asian Americans do it best. This assumption is both erroneous and dangerous. It is erroneous because it belies the reality that 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 dangerous because this model minority myth prevents the provision of public and private resources designated specifically for minority serving institutions, exacerbating a deleterious and downward spiral among underperforming AAPI subgroups.

Granted, the assumption has some truth to it. College graduation rates among Asian Americans are the 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 Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong communities living in America, aged 25 years and older, have only a high school degree or less. Equally disconcerting is that only 12-13 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, low rates of college participation and low college completion 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 East Asian and South Asians. Tongan Americans, for example, who maintain with 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 lies in ensuring adequate resources and representation. On resources, since many AAPI-serving institutions are not recognized as minority serving institutions (MSIs) they are, consequently, not incorporated into MSI-specific initiatives, which 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 that these institutions can gain better access to a myriad of critical resources. Additionally, more resources explicitly dedicated to college-level English-language learning and developmental reading are essential. On this, AAPIs top the charts. 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.

On representation, AAPI students will be better equipped to pursue and complete education degrees if AAPIs are better represented in leadership positions within and without the school system. That AAPI students comprise nearly four percent of total primary and secondary enrollment, while half that number of AAPIs are in teaching positions, makes cultural and linguistic barriers all the more problematic. That a disproportionately low percentage of AAPIs serve in high school and college leadership positions - with 0.6 percent serving 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 presidency, so too must AAPIs have role models in leadership positions. That AAPIs comprise only 2.3 percent of senior executive positions in the public sector (a figure which President Obama boosted by nominating three AAPIs to his cabinet) and only 1.5 percent of Fortune 500 board seats in the private sector means more work must be done to inspire young AAPIs to pursue higher education.

Ridding our educational system of these race-related equity gaps will take time and significant 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 socio-economic disparities and racial inequalities, increase the competitiveness of America's workforce, 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.

Rep Honda (CA-15) is the Chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.