Asian Americans in education

By Francisco Ramos, Andrés Castro Samayoa, Alice Ginsberg, and Marybeth Gasman

In 2010 Asian immigrants surpassed Latinos as the largest group of newly arrived migrants to the United States Recently arrived Asian immigrants are, on average, more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value on marriage, parenthood, hard work, and career success than most Americans (Pew Research Center, 2012).  

Despite the general sense of expressed optimism and personal satisfaction, institutions of higher education are struggling to respond to the cultural particularities of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students. Troubling cultural myths — such as the idea that Asian Americans are a model minority — continue to receive substantive critiques pertaining to their concealment of unequal social conditions affecting specific communities within the broader AAPI umbrella (Museus & Kiang, 2009). Indeed, as Kiran Ahuja, executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders, has noted, “Data disaggregation is some activists’ civil rights issue,” especially as it pertains to the various Asian ethnic groups within the United States. Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs) are one of the resources catering to this diversity.

AANAPISIs are federally designated Minority Serving Institutions whose total student body population is at least 10% AAPI and at least 50% eligible for federal need-based financial assistance. These institutions tailor specific resources to cater to diverse AAPI populations within their student body. AANAPISIs are significant because they recognize the unique challenges AAPI students face, such as college access and completion. According to Robert Teranishi (2012), AAPI students who enroll in AANAPISIs primarily do so because of lower tuition costs, issues pertaining to language and culture, and proximity to home. AANAPISIs also play a crucial role in AAPI student attendance and degree conferral. In 2007, for example, AANAPISIs enrolled 75% of all low-income AAPI students in U.S. higher education (Congressional Record Service, 2009). In addition, AANAPISIs confer a sizable portion of education degrees to students of color.

Table 1.

Bachelor of Arts Degrees Conferred (2014)

National AANAPISIs
Degrees conferred in education 107,580    38,888    (36%)
Degrees conferred to people of color in education 20,618    2,076 (10%)
Degrees conferred to men of color in education 4,399    291 (6.5%)

There is no question that AANAPISIs have a tremendous impact on the production of education degrees nationwide, especially when accounting for the fact that they represent 144 of the over 4,000 postsecondary institutions in the nation (~0.3%). Though there are many factors that contribute to their success, one cannot overlook the importance of outreach programs that help bridge the divides between AAPI students, college access, and completion. Founded in October 2010 within the California State University (CSU) system, the Asian American and Pacific Islander Initiative is a concerted effort to improve college access, retention, and graduation rates for AAPI students from underserved communities.

As a collaboration between CSU faculty and staff, parents, community partners and K-12 stakeholders, this initiative addresses cultural and institutional challenges that confront AAPI students during their education trajectories. According to CSU East Bay President Leroy Morishita, the strength of AAPI programs such as Journey to Success is that they help students and parents who have “difficulty understanding the U.S. educational system and how it operates.”

As successful programs such as the AAPI Initiative continue to address the most pressing issues faced by AAPI students, more needs to be done in terms of addressing the cultural and institutional challenges that ethnic and racial minority students confront. AANAPISIs are a bold step in this direction. Scholars and educators must take note of these important endeavors if we are to meaningfully deliver on the promise of a higher educational system that reflects the diversity of the United States.


Congressional Record Service. (2009). Memorandum regarding the number of institutions potentially eligible to receive grants under the assistance to Asian American and Native American and Pacific Islander-serving institutions programs. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Ginder, S.A., Kelly-Reid, J.E., & Mann, F.B. (2014). Enrollment in postsecondary institutions, Fall 2013. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Museus, S. & Kiang, P. (2009). Deconstructing the model minority myth and how it contributes to the invisible minority reality in higher education research. New Directions for Institutional Research,142 (142), 5-15.

Pew Research Center (2012). The rise of Asian Americans.

Teranishi, R. (2012). Asian American and Pacific Islander students and the institutions that serve them. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 44 (2), 16-22.

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