Asian-American Students, The Myth of The ‘Model Minority’

Some Are Whizzier Than Others:

A new report by leading American educators challenges the stereotype of the over-achieving Asian-American student, including the perception that they cluster in science, technology, engineering and math. The study points out that the term ‘Asian-American’ is extraordinarily broad, embracing members of many ethnic groups. Said one of the researchers, “Certainly there’s a lot of Asians doing well at the top of the curve, and that’s a point of pride; but there are just as many struggling at the bottom, and we wanted to draw attention to that. Our goal is to have people understand that the population is very diverse.”

These statistics may mask a more complex reality.

With their high visibility on elite college campuses, Asian-Americans have picked up a nickname that makes many uncomfortable: the ‘model minority.’ For example, while Asian-Americans make up only 5% of the US population, they comprise 10% or more of students at elite colleges (and this is much higher in some states like California). But a new report argues that Asian-Americans’ reputation for academic success has obscured important variations within the group, created a false sense that all their education needs are being met, and that lumping together all Asian groups masks the poverty and academic difficulties of some subgroups.

Relative to other ethnic minorities, Asian-Americans have been extremely successful by many academic measures. They substantially outscore other minority groups on college entrance examinations, and nearly half have earned a bachelor’s degree, much higher than the national average.

While Asian-Americans earn above-average incomes and achieve high levels of education, David Wu, a US Congressman from Oregon said, ”We are not [a monolithic] ethnic group, [and not] everyone has graduated from Harvard.” In fact, there are wide disparities in achievement among the 48 different sub-categories of Asian-Americans that fall into that main census category.

Each group has its own language and culture, are as varied as the Hmong, Samoans, Bengalis and Sri Lankans, and their educational backgrounds vary widely. For example, most Hmong and Cambodian adults living in the US have never finished high school, and less than 10% earn a bachelor’s degree. By contrast, nearly half of Filipinos and Koreans and most Pakistanis and Indians living in the US have at least a bachelor’s degree. On standardized tests, Asians are disproportionately represented among both the highest and lowest scores. Further, while Asian-American enrollment has surged at many high-profile four year universities, it is actually increasing nearly twice as fast at two-year community colleges.

The coordinator of the Asian and Pacific Islander Student Center at a California university said, “The ‘model minority’ idea is a burden for many Asian-American students. What’s insidious about that idea now is that a lot of the youth of Asian descent who are raised in the U.S. are pressured by this ‘model minority’ myth both by their families and by society.”

The ‘model minority’ argument can also mislead policy-makers. One of the researchers at New York University said Asian-American students face the challenge of ”being invisible, [with] people assuming they don’t have any educational needs, [that] they don’t need services, [and that] they don’t need to be included when it comes to particular policies. There’s a trend relating to [the] use of mental health services [and increased] suicide rates”, indicating Asian-American students may be at particular risk.

While the end of affirmative action policies that have given preference to black and Latino students may significantly boost the number of Asian-Americans in universities (at the expense of those same black and Latino students), it’s not clear if the new admissions criteria that replaced the old system have benefited Asian-Americans overall. Further, it has pitted Asian-Americans against these other ethnic minorities. The report said that Asian-Americans have been turned into buffers, “middlemen in the cost-benefit analysis of wins and losses.” Some have even suggested that, as a result, Asian-Americans are held to higher admissions standards at the most selective colleges. Additionally, Asian-American academic success has not translated into success in academia, where less than 1% of college presidents are Asian-Americans.

Finally, the report found that contrary to stereotype, most of the bachelor’s degrees that Asian-Americans receive are in business, management, social science or humanities, not in science, technology, engineering or math (the so-called STEM degrees). Nonetheless, there continues to be a stereotypical perception that Asian-American ‘model minority’ students are edging out all others. At the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), some joke that “UCLA stands for United Caucasians Lost Among Asians”, and that the initials for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) means “Made in Taiwan.”

Source: New York Times, Associated Press

Facts, Not Fiction: Setting the Record Straight

Link to report: https://www.nyu.edu/projects/care/CAREReport2008.pdf