Challenging Beliefs on Asian-American Students

New analysis suggests that convention wisdom is wrong -- and that stereotypes are preventing necessary discussion about education needs and trends.
June 10, 2008

Three "pervasive and core fictions" undermine the development of education policy with regard to Asian American students, according to a report released Monday by the College Board and a national commission of experts on Asian-American education.

The report suggests that while Asian-American students have achieved notable successes on admissions tests such as the SAT and admission rates at highly selective institutions, only a subset enjoys such accomplishments. Many other students lag, but they are excluded from support programs and the public discussion about diversifying higher education because of the success of others. The panel that prepared the report with the College Board was set up by the Asian/Pacific/American Institute and the Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy, both of New York University.

The three myths countered in “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders -- Facts, Not Fiction: Setting the Record Straight,” are:

  • Asian Americans are "taking over" American higher education.
  • Asian Americans are concentrated only in selective universities.
  • Asian Americans are "a homogeneous racial group with uniformity in educational and financial attainment, culture, religion and histories."

The report comes at a time that many talented Asian-American high school students -- and the guidance counselors who advise them -- fear that the most competitive institutions are discriminating against them. The report also comes at a time that the success of some Asian Americans is viewed as license to mock them in ways that strike many as insensitive at best and racist at worst.

To challenge various stereotypes, the report cites data showing, for example, that Asian American students enroll in plenty of college programs having nothing to do with math and science. In fact while Asian American enrollments are high in engineering, even there the figures might surprise many observers -- especially those who in their minds combine students from Asian countries (who are not Americans) with Asian Americans.

Breakdown of Undergraduate Degrees, 2003

Field Percentage of All Bachelor's Degrees Percentage of Degrees Earned by Asian Americans
Business 33.7% 28.8%
Social sciences and humanities 19.5% 26.1%
Engineering 15.9% 21.8%
Education 17.4% 14.2%
Health sciences 7.3% 3.0%
Biological/life sciences 6.2% 6.2%

Echoing other reports that have noted that much of the academic success attributed to Asian Americans is a result of three or more generations of work in the United States, the new study notes that plenty of Asian American students are landing at community colleges, not in the Ivy League, and that these students are attracted by the same qualities that attract other students: a commitment to helping those less prepared advance in American society and an open door policy.

In fact, during the last decade, Asian American enrollments were up most dramatically at community colleges, even though that is only where a minority of Asian Americans enroll.

Enrollment of Asian Americans by Sector

Sector Enrollment, 2000 % Change in Enrollment, 1990-2000
Private, four-year colleges 101,751 +53.4%
Public, four-year colleges 354,564 +42.2%
Community colleges 363,798 +73.3%


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