Higher education policy needs to be better informed about the experiences of all American students if we are going to meet President Obama’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.
I am a former community college president at Mission College in Santa Clara, CA, and at Laney College in Oakland, CA. I also served as Dean of Student Affairs at City College of San Francisco. Throughout my career, one of the prevalent misconceptions I have encountered is the “Model Minority Myth,” which stereotypes all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) as a successful group of students.
This stereotype disregards the culturally and socio-economically diverse populations who comprise the AAPI community. Broad and inaccurate generalizations can lead to limited or inadequate support to subgroups of this community who are struggling at all levels of our education system. For example, approximately 38 percent of Cambodian, Hmong and Laotian Americans age 25 and older have less than a high school education compared with just 15 percent of the overall population. Only 15 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders 25 years of age and older have at least a bachelor’s degree compared to 28 percent for the total population.
The underlying issue here is how data is collected. The aggregation of data masks wide disparities that exist within this community and misinforms policy. This year, the U.S. Department of Education will start complying with OMB Directive 15, which reports Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders separately from Asian Americans. While this will not completely resolve the problem, it is a step in the right direction.
Here is another interesting statistic – the largest segment of AAPI undergraduate enrollment (47.3 percent) is at community colleges. Struggling with the cost of higher education, AAPIs are enrolling in community colleges then transferring to four-year institutions. Others enroll in adult education classes and career technical education classes to prepare for occupations such as welding and allied health careers.
Recently I helped organize four Regional Community College Summits in Philadelphia, Houston, Indianapolis and San Diego. The Summits were comprised of trustees, presidents, administrators, faculty, students, foundations and employers.
Some takeaways were that employers are turning to community colleges for college-ready and career-ready students. Our higher education institutions need resources to better equip all Americans, including AAPI students, with the right skills to pursue high-paying and fulfilling careers. Students who attended the summits spoke about the high costs of textbooks, the lack of information about scholarships and financial aid, and the lack of career guidance on their campuses.
AAPI students face similar challenges coupled with English not being their native language. Many of them are first generation college students and have trouble navigating their way around college campuses. Increasingly, they choose community colleges because they are more affordable, closer to home, allow for easier school and work schedule, and provide stronger support systems of students and faculty.
With 8 million students enrolling each year, community colleges are pivotal to developing America’s workforce and reaching our educational goals. AAPI students at community colleges and other institutions are ready and willing to receive the best education possible and be contributing citizens. As educators and policy makers, it is vital that we understand and accommodate their needs to ensure we are investing wisely so they can go on to be successful in their fields, and in their contributions to the American workforce and economy. As we observe AAPI Heritage Month, let us celebrate the successes of the AAPI community but also remember the needs that still exist. We must unleash the full potential of all students in order to win the future.
Frank Chong is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Colleges in the Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE).