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Asian Evasion: A Recipe for Flawed Resolutions

Asians are arguably one of the most misunderstood groups in higher education. Even categorizing “Asian” students can be quite confusing. For example, should data be disaggregated by different Asian subgroups?

The confusion over the seemingly simple task of reporting the proportional representation for this group extends beyond just considering students, but also concerns the reporting of faculty, staff and administrators. How institutions choose to categorize this population has serious implications associated with access to educational and professional opportunities. A major problem is that those choices are often based on deeply rooted racial stereotypes instead of hard facts.

Fortunately, significant progress has been made in recent years toward improving understanding of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. In 2007, Congress passed a provision to create an AAPI Higher Education Serving Institution designation as part of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act. This also provides funding for some institutions to address the educational challenges facing many AAPI communities. Additionally, the University of California (UC) system established the University of California Asian American and Pacific Islander Policy Multi- Campus Research Program in 2007. This collaborative develops a network of faculty researchers who are committed to supporting and conducting applied research relevant to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. These and other efforts in the last decade concerning Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders contribute significantly to a richer and more accurate understanding of this fast-growing college population.

Still, those efforts must contend with at least two formidable and unwavering trends. One is what I call the myth of “Asian invasion” and the other is “Asian evasion.”

The myth of Asian invasion concerns the widespread belief that Asians have “overtaken” or “invaded” colleges and universities. While there has certainly been tremendous growth in the enrollment of AAPI students, a 2008 College Board report, “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders: Facts, Not Fiction: Setting the Record Straight,” claims that No. 1 their increasing presence parallels similar increases experienced by other student populations (e.g., African-American & Hispanics); No. 2 the AAPI student population is concentrated in a small percentage of institutions, giving a false impression of high overall enrollment.

This report also notes that of those Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders enrolled in higher education nearly half attend two-year institutions and about the same proportion attend college in only one state (California). A University of California, Los Angeles, report, “Beyond Myths: The Growth and Diversity of Asian American College Freshmen, 1971-2005,” also found that fewer AAPI freshmen in 2005 report they are attending their first choice institutions compared to previous AAPI cohorts and the national population of entering college students. The above findings suggest that an Asian invasion is wildly overstated, yet this myth continues to be deployed in unquestioned and problematic ways. In early October 2006, for example, a student journalist for UCLA’s newspaper The Daily Bruin wrote in a satire that if we’re going to blame anyone for the lack of diversity, “I say we blame the Asians.” After all, he argues, “Using grades and test scores as a measure of academic success is clearly just a way to show preference to Asian-American students, who are better at both, and thus promote the status quo.”

One of the many problems with the above argument is that the myth of Asian invasion is deployed to support the claim about a mismatch between “merit” and “diversity” in college admissions. Logically, using stereotypes to support a position makes for a dubious argument, yet what tend to be fiercely contested with such arguments are the authors’ controversial positions (e.g., affirmative action), and not the myth of Asian invasion. When this occurs, we miss the opportunity to elevate public understanding by addressing not only faulty conclusions but also popular stereotypes.

To prevent making those mistakes, we need to do a better job addressing AAPI students in ways that center on the facts surrounding this population rather than on unfamiliar subjects for addressing controversial issues. I refer to Asian evasion as the propensity to evade a serious fact-based discussion that centers on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The practice of Asian evasion contributes to even greater confusion about educational issues, including the intersection between hypercompetitive admissions, affirmative action and race.

Reversing Asian evasion is becoming increasingly important because many pending issues in higher education require a thoughtful fact-based analysis that considers race in order to reach a sensible resolution. They include college admissions, financial aid, remedial education, science education, global and cultural literacy and civic engagement, to name a few.

— Dr. Mitchell J. Chang is an associate professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. He is a co-author of the report, “Beyond Myths: The Growth and Diversity of Asian American College Freshmen, 1971-2005.” 

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