The Reality of Asians and Higher Education Access

The public discussion of the Harvard lawsuit creates a false impression, one that ignores the poverty and disadvantages faced by many Asian Americans, writes Noel Harmon.

November 26, 2018
 
Getty Images

Under the shadow of the lawsuit against Harvard University, the College Board recently released the average SAT scores for last year’s test takers. Interestingly, the scores showed that the highest average score and the highest increase in score both were achieved by Asian Americans. The testimony about Asian applicant credentials for Ivy League schools and the reporting of test scores are positive and are consistent with the long-held stereotypes about the success of Asians in college and therefore their ability to move up in socioeconomic status. But the economic and education reality for the majority of Asian and Pacific Islander students is much different than current media accounts suggest.

Quite often the reporting of poverty or inequity of wealth distribution in the United States focuses on the income spread among white, black, Hispanic and sometimes Native American populations. With this breakdown, Asians and Pacific Islander Americans (APIA) become invisible. By not being included in how our country talks about haves and have-nots, APIA students become nonexistent in discussions of equity and opportunity disparity and that makes it impossible to advocate for those who need and deserve our attention.

A recent study from Pew Research Center found that income inequity in the United States is growing most rapidly among APIA populations. The report stated, “From 1970 to 2016, the gap in the standard of living between Asians near the top and the bottom of the income ladder nearly doubled, and the distribution of income among Asians transformed from being one of the most equal to being the most unequal among America’s major racial and ethnic groups.” Further, from 2007 to 2011, the number of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in poverty increased by 38 percent, and the overall number of APIA is growing faster than any other racial group and expected to exceed 50 million by 2060 (U.S. Census Bureau). The intersection of these two data sets indicate we have a population that is growing both in size and need.

Some argue that the focus on wealth inequality in the United States is misplaced and instead the conversation should focus on opportunity, but the reality is that all financial equality solutions are complex and the list of options necessary to reduce the divide between the financial haves and have-nots must include higher education as a solution. Despite the potential for college degrees and high-quality credentials to even the opportunity playing field, much must be done to truly make that field level. From 2006 through 2008, 56 percent of Pacific Islanders and 45 percent of Southeast Asians who enrolled in college left without a degree, and a full 50 to 65 percent of Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders do not enroll in college at all (National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education CARE, 2012).

I lead the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholars program, which is the largest scholarship provider for APIA students as they access higher education and complete college degrees. Our scholarship recipients reflect the diversity of the nation’s APIA populations. Approximately 60 percent of our students are the first in their family to attend college, and over 60 percent of our scholars live at or below the poverty line. We provide over 6,000 scholarships valued at over $110 million as the bridge from economic inequity to opportunity, and the long-term success for our scholar graduates is clear.

APIA students continue to face tremendous disparities in access to postsecondary education and degree attainment -- disparities that are often overlooked because APIA data is not disaggregated like it is for other underrepresented groups. When disaggregated, graduation data shows degree attainment is high for some groups -- nearly three-quarters of South Asians have a college degree -- while other groups are far below the national average, with only one in four Pacific Islanders and one in five Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong Americans having earned a college degree. The economic disparities among APIAs are also tremendous, with the top 10 percent of APIAs earning nearly 10 times more than the bottom 10 percent of APIAs (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

APIAs who earn a college degree earn on average more than $15,000 a year more than those who do not have a degree, for an estimated $1 million more in career-long earnings, which represents more than 60 percent more than those who hold only a high school diploma. The pay differential is the difference between poverty and self-sufficiency among APIA families. College degrees and higher education opportunities can lift APIA populations out of poverty, diversify the work force and fill the current job openings for education-credentialed adults.

There is much work to be done to address inequity across higher education, but an important step is to name the problem and to identify the scope of the issue to be addressed. Based on current reporting and national conversations, I know I have a lot of work to do and am committed to addressing the misconceptions associated with the educational preparedness and attainment of Asian Americans. Our students deserve it.

Bio

Noel Harmon is president of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund.

Read more by

Back to Top