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Higher Ed Gaps Among Asian, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islanders

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Screen Shot 2022 06 07 At 3 10 13 PmArtist Susan ChenThe Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonprofit focused on higher education equity in California, released a report on the state of higher education among Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Californians. The findings stress a persistent need for disaggregating data on AANHPI students by the many ethnic groups that make up the community.

“There is out in public discourse this idea that our Asian American community is doing well when it comes to higher education attainment,” said Audrey Dow, senior vice president at the Campaign for College Opportunity. “Even more than that, we also have this belief that so many of our Asian American students are in the top universities in the state. But when you look at the data, that story just doesn’t play out. That is why it was also really important for us to tease out the diversity within the AANHPI community.”

California is home to the largest Asian American population in the country and the second largest Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) community. Californians who identify as Asian American and NHPI have backgrounds from more than 48 ethnicities, noted the report. Yet the AANHPI community can often be lumped together, making subgroups invisible.

Dow pointed out that 59% of Asian Americans between the ages of 25 to 64, not including NHPI Californians, have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the report. Within that same age range, however, only 22% of NHPI Californians have a bachelor’s degree, which is one of the lowest rates among all racial or ethnic groups in the state.

The report additionally stated that the majority of AANHPI students in California attend one of the 116 California Community Colleges (CCC’s). But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, AANHPI enrollment at CCC’s dropped by 20%. There have also been transfer and completion problems.

Only 28% of Asian American community college students in California transfer to a four-year university after six years, and only 15% earn a degree or certificate. For NHPI students, those numbers are even lower. Just 22% of NHPI students transfer and only 11% earn a degree or certificate in six years. Among Samoan students alone, a stark 7% of those who enroll in a California community college graduate in six years.

“Unfortunately, the data that treats AAPIs as an aggregate group is concealing the unique challenges by subgroups,” said Dr. Robert Teranishi, professor of education and the Morgan and Helen Chu Endowed Chair in Asian American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who used the term AAPI to refer to Asian American Pacific Islanders. “There are significant disparities in college preparation, degree attainment, even issues of access and utilization of services by different AAPI subgroups. We have a big interest in issues of equity, access, and inclusion, but we’re approaching that on the level of broad racial categories that hide what is happening.”

The report listed several recommendations for K-12 schools, community colleges and universities, state policies, and federal policies to tackle such challenges facing the AANHPI community in California higher education.

“The first and foremost recommendation is disaggregating the data,” said Dow, who noted that the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) from the U.S. Department of Education does not contain disaggregated data on AANHPI subgroups, yet it is the primary source of higher education data in the country.

Teranishi agreed, adding that he thinks the lack of disaggregated data is one of the biggest barriers to making more equitable policy and programmatic shifts.

“I think this is one of the most important civil rights issues for the AAPI community because it is rendering the most marginalized subgroups invisible,” he said. “That’s a big deal because right now, in terms of higher education, data-driven decisions are more prevalent than ever. So, we have to think about what data we’re using—and who gets included or excluded because of that information.”

The report also pointed to the lack of AANHPI faculty and the need for stronger pipelines. At CCC's, for example, there are three times as many Asian American students per Asian American faculty member as there are white students for each white faculty member. In the California State University (CSU) system, there were over 100 NHPI students for each NHPI faculty member in 2019 to 2020, per the report.

Dr. Nicholas Hartlep, the Robert Charles Billings Endowed Chair in Education and Associate Professor of Education Studies at Berea College, noted that these numbers reflect an even bigger problem. There are not enough Asian American K-12 teachers as well as teacher educators.

“That’s not just a California-specific problem. That’s national,” said Hartlep, who is Asian American. “There are just too few of us. We know the solution. We know what needs to be done. But there really aren’t enough people who are morally outraged enough to do it. We can target-hire. We can encourage Asian American middle and high school students to pursue teaching. And we can incentivize teaching through scholarships. Yet because of the model minority stereotype, this is just dismissed.”

To counter that model minority stereotype, Hartlep added that reports like this are a step in the right direction. He noted more conversations on subgroups in the AANHPI community, including even whether to call the community AANHPI or Asian American or AAPI, is critical.

“We need to continue to write reports that focus on Asian Americans—because otherwise they will continue to be invisible,” said Hartlep.

The report additionally pointed to how anti-Asian hate crimes, including those committed on campuses, have skyrocketed, increasing by 420% from 2019 to 2021. That reality has meant many AANHPI community members fear for their safety nationwide. For campuses, Teranishi said that higher education leaders need to acknowledge this and offer concrete support to AANHPI students, faculty, and staff in response.

“Colleges need to understand the unique needs and challenges of their students—and also the relevance of the AAPI community to their commitment to equity and inclusion,” said Teranishi. “A lot of colleges, even those with a critical mass of AAPI students, have to better understand how their students are affected by the rise in anti-Asian racism, then support them accordingly. I think support is needed for students themselves but also to engage with the local community.”

Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at [email protected].

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