Education

Addressing Another Inequity in Higher Education

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Prejudice takes many forms. There’s the interpersonal: Entrenched attitudes and preconceived attitudes that support, cause, or justify discrimination.

Then there’s structural or systemic discrimination: Embedded in practices and policies that create and perpetuate discrimination which may or not be intentional.

Especially invidious is yet another form of prejudice, cultural bias, which takes it for granted that there are marked cultural differences between ethnic or racial groups.

In some instances, those cultural stereotypes might seem superficially positive: for example, the notion that Asian Americans are especially intelligent and industrious.

But even seemingly positive stereotypes are dangerous. The view of Asian Americans as particularly smart, hardworking, and successful coexists with other gross generalizations, such as an excessive focus on academics or an absence of interpersonal skills.

Such caricatures result in many poisonous consequences. There’s a tendency to pigeon hole individuals into narrow categories and to ignore or stigmatize those who don’t fit the mold.

What I’d like to do here is ask what campuses can do to better serve the fastest growing segment of the undergraduate population: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from low-income and refugee and immigrant backgrounds.

There’s a mistaken tendency to assume that Asian Americans are doing fine, and do not need any special attention.  After all, Asian Americans are the most highly educated segment of the population and by some measures have the highest household income.

The achievement levels of Asian American students is astounding. Asian Americans, who make up 5.7 percent of the U.S. population, comprise 42 percent of the students at MIT, 40 percent at Cal Tech, 38 percent at UC San Diego, 36 percent at UC Irvine, 35 percent at Berkeley, 30 percent at Carnegie Mellon, 28 percent at UCLA, and 25 percent at Harvard.

Nor can this simply be attributed to family income or parental education.

But statistics like these are, as we all know, frequently misused. Asian Americans’ academic success is often used as a wedge issue in politics. It also raises the specter of despicable pseudoscientific claims of innate genetic or cultural superiority.

In addition, it denies certain fundamental realities:

1. That Asian Americans aren’t a monolith.
The Asian American Pacific Islander umbrella is a political construct that’s just 40 years old, and combines people from 48 national, ethnic, and religious backgrounds: Bangladeshi, Burmese, Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Guamanian or Chamorro, native Hawaiian, Hmong, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Nepalese, Pakistani, Samoan, Thai, and Vietnamese, among others.

A highly heterogenous composite, this category fails to take account of the peoples with very different histories, languages, religions, and social status.

2. That Asian Americans, like other groups, vary widely in their educational and economic attainment.
Lumping Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders together can easily blind us to those with low rates of college enrollment and degree attainment. Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders are much more likely to drop out of high school or college than East and South Asians.

Also, gross generalizations about outsized Asian American academic success obscure a more complex reality. Over 40 percent of Asian American undergrads attend community colleges, not elite, highly selective 4-year institutions.

In addition, Asian Americans are the most economically stratified racial or ethnic group in the United States, and some of the generalization about Asian American economic success are deceptive because these households are more especially likely to contain multiple wage earners.

3. That there are drawbacks to the success orientation that we shouldn’t ignore.
As Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou have shown, high and sometimes unrealistic expectations for academic achievement and intense internalized pressures to succeed can harm students’ mental health while narrowing their sense of career possibilities.

4. That Asian Americans remain subject to discrimination, stereotyping, and violence.
To take just one example: Relative to their education, Asian Americans remain grossly underrepresented in elective office and senior-level leadership and professional, executive, and managerial positions and underpaid relative to their qualifications.

Whatever one thinks of the lawsuit challenging Harvard’s admissions policies, there are good reasons to believe that Harvard did, in some cases, stereotype Asian American applicants, pit prospective Asian American students against one another (as opposed to comparing them to white applicants), and establish a soft, de facto quota that fixed admissions at around 20 percent before this was called out by the lawsuit. 

For all the forceful denunciations of anti-Asian and anti-Asian American violence by college leaders, there are also grounds to question whether many leading institutions treat Asian American students fairly in admissions. In their 2009 student of elite college admissions and campus life, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandra Radford, that Asian American applicants to selective colleges had just one-third the chance of white applicants.

As Daniel Golden, a senior editor at ProPublica and the author of The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gatesmakes clear, attention to the admission of Asian Americans at elite institutions is often used as a distraction from the groups that benefit the most from preferential admissions.  His book shows how highly selective institutions privilege already advantaged students while doing little to increase diversity or redress historical discrimination.

There is also evidence that Asian Americans face invidious stereotyping on campus, are less likely to receive academic support or counseling than other students, have less access to culturally relevant programming, and are underserved in terms of student life initiatives. The most obvious example involves the gross underrepresentation of Asian American undergraduates in college athletics.

All that said, Asian American students do, on average, earn higher grades, score better on standardized tests, and are more likely to and attend highly selective colleges than other groups.  Not only are Asian Americans the only group that has met the Obama administration’s attainment goals – of 60 percent receiving a college degree – but they are only group whose standardized scores have consistently risen over the past two decades.

These students’ success has given rise to facile and disingenuous cultural explanations, like that advanced by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, who link the high achievement of Chinese, East Indian, Iranian, Jewish, Mormon, and Nigerian Americans to a “triple package” that consists of a sense of cultural superiority, feelings of insecurity, and high levels of impulse control.

Other supposed explanations emphasize strict parenting, a unique receptiveness to learning and a drive to excel academically, an unusually strong work ethic, stable marriages combined with intense multigenerational family bonds, and a value system emphasizing filial respect and family obligations.

More serious research produced by such scholars as Columbia’s Jennifer Lee, UCLA’s Min Zhou and Robert T. Teranishi, UC San Diego’s Samuel D. Museus, Maryland’s Julie J. Park, and CUNY’s Philip Kasinitz casts doubt on those gross cultural generalizations and offers a very different take that stresses:

5. Mindset
Asian American students are not only more likely to attribute academic achievement to greater effort, rather than innate ability, but are also possess unusually high expectations for their own school performance.  This mindset translates into more time spent studying or completing homework.

Equally important is a zealous focus on education as the key to upward mobility – an attitude reinforced by the belief that education offers the surest form of protection against discrimination within and outside the job market.

6.  Access to High Quality K-12 Schools
Lower-income Asian American parents tend to place a premium on getting their children admitted to highly competitive high schools. Even lower-income Asian American students are more likely than Black and Latinx students to attend schools with higher achieving non-Asian American classmates. 

Among the strategies that these families use are to leverage community connections and extended family ties to move to neighborhoods with especially strong schools and to emphasize the importance of competitive testing by disproportionately enrolling their children in afterschool, Saturday, and test preparation programs.  In New York, 43 percent of the low-income students enrolled in the city’s free test prep courses are Asian.

As Vivian Louie’s Compelled to Excel has shown, for households of comparable wealth, Chinese Americans will invest more heavily in education because of the discrimination they anticipate their children will face.

Positive Stereotyping
I can personally attest to the value of positive stereotyping.  Certainly, an Ivy League pedigree and recommendations from name brand faculty members work wonders.  It’s apparently the case that if teachers assume a student is smart, diligent, focused, and hard-working, irrespective of the reality, benefit of the doubt will follow.

Community Support
Asian American communities tend to be heterogeneous along class and occupational lines. Cross-class social networks contributed to the development of a robust array of ethnic community institutions that contribute significantly to the success of many low-income recent immigrant.  These include weekend schools, after school programs ethnic churches and mosques, and mutual benefit societies that provided job referral and loans.

Selective Migration
Immigrants and refugees, we are often told, possess personal attributes that bode well for successful adaptation to the new country.  They’re risktakers who are driven to improve their life.  In the case of Asian immigrants, U.S. policies following 1965 favored those with high levels of education and professional skills and selective immigration contributed to the perception that Asian immigrants had a special academic acumen.  (It’s noteworthy that as early as 1960, Chinese Americans’ college graduation rates exceeded those of native whites, even though the monetary payoff was far less substantial).

Even though Asian American immigrants today are more diverse and many arrive from lower-income regions, the precedents established and the social capital created by those who arrived earlier continue to shape parents’ educational attitudes, behaviors, expectations, and childrearing strategies across class lines. 

Let me stress: In the United States’ highly unequal society, ethnic group membership has resulted in unequal access to higher quality schools, to neighborhoods with very different social characteristics, and to institutional support (including access to capital).

As Philip Kasinitz has shown, these structural factors can increase or impede socioeconomic mobility.  For many Asian immigrants to the United States, these factors contribute to cross-generational success.

What, then, are the implications of these findings for colleges and universities?  

1. Colleges and universities need to disaggregate ethnicity and racial data.
It’s obvious: Even students of the same ethnic or racial background are not alike. We need to apply the concept of intersectionality – first used by the critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to describe the ways various identities reinforce one another in defining status, privilege, and power – to identify students’ whose needs are currently unmet, whether in terms of admissions or institutional supports.  

Los Angeles’ school system uses the rather unwieldy acronym AANHPI AMEMSA (Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian) to describe the diversity of its own subpopulation of Asian and Pacific Islander students.  Higher ed, too, needs to think in similarly complex ways.

2.  Institutions need to provide Asian American and Pacific Island students with more support.
The assumption that the overwhelming majority of Asian American students need no support is profoundly mistaken. There is substantial evidence that Asian American students are less likely to take advantage of academic tutoring, career services, and counseling, despite similar levels of need.

Institutions should respond by expanding outreach efforts, establishing formal offices, and encouraging students to form study groups and interest groups.  Campuses also need to provide Asian American students with more role models and mentors, while remembering that these individuals need not be academics.

Indeed, since the overwhelming majority of undergraduates of all ethnic backgrounds are not interested in becoming professors or researchers, we need to offer diverse exemplars from a wide variety of fields and occupations.

3.  Campuses need to expand community outreach to underserved Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
Asian American enrollment is currently concentrated in a relatively small number of institutions. Currently, there are just 38 Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions, compared to 569 Hispanic-Serving Institutions.

Institutions need to reach out much more aggressively, especially toward lower-income Asian American communities. Approaches ought to include summer bridge programs,like the Teagle Foundation’s Knowledge for Freedom program that introduces high school students from underserved populations to college faculty and the college experience. Or in-serve teacher support programs like UTeach or afterschool programs like the Neuroscience and Philosophy in the Schools initiatives undertaken by Columbia doctoral students or expanded tutoring projects that serve neighboring students.

One of my teachers, the great Southern historian C. Vann Woodward, used to quip that Americans are color-blind:  We tend to see the world in black and white.

As the U.S. population grows more diverse, we must be careful not to let cultural stereotypes obscure the need to better serve students from a multiplicity of groups.  

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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