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New Association Aims to Support Asian-American and Pacific Islander–Serving Schools

Earning a college degree isn’t on the radar for many Asian-American and Pacific Islander families. Instead, youths work, often in the family business, or wind up unemployed. Higher education is seen as unaffordable and applying for financial aid, daunting.

Even in school, AAPI students may have a tough time. Data show this group suffers from high dropout rates in high school and low rates of college enrollment and graduation.

A group called APIACU—the Asian Pacific Islander American Association of Colleges and Universities—was formed recently to advocate for institutions serving this very diverse set of ethnicities. Some methods have been effective in helping AAPIs, and APIACU will, among other things, share useful information among its members, according to Mark Mitsui, chairman of the board of directors.

The idea of creating APIACU was rolled out earlier this year during a summit of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund. APIACU became incorporated in the last few months. But “people across the country have been calling and e-mailing for quite a while now” about forming an advocacy group, said Mitsui, president of North Seattle Community College.

After some discussion, mostly among educators on the West Coast, “it finally started to jell,” says Dr. Gabriel Esteban, an APIACU founding board member and president of Seton Hall University. “We thought, ‘This is something really important, and we’ve got to do something about it.’”

Efforts to help AAPIs have been hampered by a lack of data—until now—and by the assumption that they are a “model minority” earning degrees from elite institutions, educators say.

In truth, half of AAPIs attend community colleges, and many of them don’t finish or go on to universities from there, data show.

The group, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, spans 48 ethnicities whose situations vary tremendously.

Less than 20 percent of Cambodians, Laotians and Hmong held bachelor’s degrees from 2006 to 2008, according to a report issued last year by the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education. That figure compares with more than 50 percent of Chinese, Pakistanis, Koreans and Indians, according to the report.

In that same period, the unemployment rates of Pacific Islanders—Tongans, Samoans and Native Hawaiians—and Southeast Asians such as Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians and Vietnamese—greatly outpaced those of Japanese, Sri Lankans, Thais, Chinese, Indians, Filipinos and Koreans, the report says.

Most Pacific Islander adults haven’t gone to college and “there’s not much encouragement to attend,” says Dr. Robert Underwood, vice chairman of APIACU’s board and president of the University of Guam.

The youths don’t feel part of the country’s social and economic life, he says. “The youths need role models and to break down the isolation so that they can own higher education in the same way other communities do,” he wrote in an e-mail.

South Seattle Community College, where Mitsui once served as vice president of student services, found that people from the same ethnic communities are often the best at helping each other.

In a program at the college called “Talk Story”—a Hawaiian term meaning to chat informally—Samoans spoke effectively to Samoans, Cambodians to Cambodians, and Tongans to Tongans about the need for a college education, according to May Toy Lukens, South Seattle’s project director for AAPI programs.

Lukens says AAPIs often need help to navigate the system, including with filling out forms. Coming from countries where the government is distrusted, they may be reluctant to give crucial family financial information to apply for aid.

Often, it’s just a matter of making people aware of opportunities, Esteban says. They may not know about the affordability of community college or that they can major in something that will dovetail with their interests.

APIACU’s members will include institutions eligible for federal funding for serving AAPIs. That means their student bodies must be at least 10 percent AAPI, and 50 percent of their enrollment must receive federal aid.

Fifteen institutions have received or are receiving the funding since it became available in 2008. They are community colleges and universities in California, Guam, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Texas and the state of Washington.

With an additional source of funding starting this year, schools will be sharing about $8.6 million a year in federal funding designated for AANAPISIs (Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions). The scenario is likely to get more competitive as more institutions seek eligibility and apply for funds. About 116 in the country are thought to be eligible.

APIACU is the latest in a list of groups with similar missions. Mitsui says the groups have been supportive and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities has been particularly helpful.

For the time being, APIACU is operating with volunteers and in-kind services. Mitsui said the goal is to have a staff.

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