Discrediting the "Model Minority" Stereotype

November 13, 2008

Chinese Americans are not as homogeneous as they are sometimes portrayed -- this is particularly apparent in their college-going rates and enrollment patterns -- according to a new study from the Asian American Studies Program at University of Maryland at College Park and the Organization of Chinese Americans.

“Some of the popular beliefs about Chinese Americans simply don’t withstand our findings, as you might expect with most stereotypes,” Larry H. Shinagawa, director of the Asian American Studies Program at Maryland and co-author of the study, said in a press release.

More than half -- 51.7 percent -- of Chinese Americans 25 or older have earned some sort of college degree. This is, proportionally, nearly twice as much as the rest of the U.S. population, 27 percent of whom have a college degree. In contrast, 18.5 percent of Chinese Americans have not graduated from high school, compared to 15.9 percent of the general population. Among Asian Americans, they have the second highest proportion of individuals without a high school degree. Only Vietnamese Americans, at 27.8 percent, are less likely to graduate high school.

Shinagawa said there could be any number of reasons for this disparity. He chalks some of these figures up to generational differences among Chinese Americans. Newer immigrants to the United States, he noted, contribute greatly to the number of individuals without high school diplomas. Moreover, he said, as immigrant families reunite, those who are more recent immigrants may not have the educational attainment of their relatives who immigrated earlier.

Shinagawa said he expects the number of Chinese Americans with a college degree to decline in the future, considering the high percentage of those without a high school diploma currently. Additionally, he said the college graduation rates for those beyond the first generation will also probably fall as the percentages regress toward the mean of the rest of the U.S. population.

The study also finds that Chinese Americans cluster at a small number of colleges and universities in the United States. Shinagawa said about 85 percent of all Chinese Americans attend only three percent of all the higher education institutions in the United States. While data are not available now on the specific institutions Chinese Americans are most likely to attend -- Maryland's Asian Studies Program plans to release a follow-up study on this phenomenon next year -- Shinagawa said a map pinpointing these institutions would have institutions almost entirely marked along the coasts, with a few scattered throughout the rest of the country.

He added that -- contributing to this phenomenon -- the children of working-class parents tend to attend public institutions near their homes, while children of middle-class parents tend to attend more prestigious institutions that might not necessarily be near their homes.

Socioeconomic status further diversifies the quality of educational attainment. Working-class and middle-class Chinese Americans, the study finds, not only live in different places but send their children to different types of postsecondary institutions, if they do at all. Working-class Chinese Americans typically live in “ethnic enclaves” in urban areas and are more likely to send their children to “lower-tier public colleges and universities.” By contrast, middle-class Chinese Americans live in "suburbs and ethnoburbs" -- suburban areas with a high concentration of a certain ethnic minority -- and are more likely to send their children to “top-tier public universities and select Ivy League institutions.”

Lin said when looking at more prestigious institutions, first-generation Chinese American are overrepresented and those within U.S.-born generations tend to be either slightly underrepresented or proportionally represented. This, he said, is probably because of "selective migration" -- the notion that many first-generation immigrants, who have the means to immigrate, are likely to achieve greater educational success.

After Chinese Americans graduate from college, the study finds that they earn less than non-Hispanic whites in every group of educational attainment -- those who did not graduate from high school, high school graduates, those with some college, college graduates and advanced-degree graduates. For example, Chinese Americans with bachelors degrees have an average income of $55,571, while non-Hispanic Whites with the same credentials earn $62,285. The average income for those with a bachelors degree in the general population is $59,344.

Additionally, Lin noted overall disparities and inequities exist for Chinese American faculty members in higher education. He said Chinese Americans are overrepresented in entry-level and pre-tenure positions -- especially when considering the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- but underrepresented in tenured and administrative positions. He said the lack of Chinese American leaders and mentors in the professional world is likely to blame for the both the ethnic group's lower average income than non-Hispanic whites and underrepresentation in upper-level positions in higher education

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