'Asians in the Ivory Tower'

Each fall brings articles about rising Asian-American enrollments at leading colleges and universities. But according to Robert T. Teranishi, associate professor of higher education at New York University, those stories ignore broader realities -- many of them challenging -- for Asian-Americans in higher education.

October 8, 2010

Each fall brings articles about rising Asian-American enrollments at leading colleges and universities. But according to Robert T. Teranishi, associate professor of higher education at New York University, those stories ignore broader realities -- many of them challenging -- for Asian-Americans in higher education. In his new book, Asians in the Ivory Tower: Dilemmas of Racial Inequality in American Higher Education, he discusses these challenges. He responded to questions in an e-mail interview about the book.

Q: We've just come through another round of studies on such topics as average SAT scores, and the results show considerable Asian success. What do you make of such figures as average SAT scores?

A: The SAT scores for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) reveal two important trends that are often not recognized by educators, practitioners, and policymakers. First, the "average" SAT score for AAPIs is concealing a wider and more uneven (bimodal) distribution of scores than is the case for other populations. Therefore, while there are some AAPI students grouped among scores in the top percentile, there are also many AAPI students who are grouped among scores in the bottom percentile. This wide distribution in scores for AAPIs is correlated with a high degree of heterogeneity within the population with regard to ethnicity and immigration histories, educational attainment and poverty rates, and a wide distribution in language backgrounds.

Second, the AAPI student population is often confounded with international students from Asia, which also proves to be an issue in the reporting of SAT scores. SAT scores for AAPIs are actually inclusive of “Asians,” “Asian Americans,” “Pacific Islanders,” and students who attended high school both inside and outside the U.S. AAPIs have the highest proportion of students who attended high school outside the U.S. and these students scored 90 points higher on the math section and 33 points higher on the verbal section. As a result, the SAT scores for AAPIs are skewed positively by international students, a trend that is also not occurring to the same extent for other populations.

Q: Many Asian American students believe that they are held to a higher standard or that quotas are used against them. Do you think that elite colleges are discriminating against Asian applicants?

A: This is actually one instance where AAPIs receive attention in higher education. One perspective I bring to this issue is the extent to which AAPIs are often used as a wedge group in broader equity debates in higher education. For example, opponents to affirmative action, such as Ward Connerly, like to say that whites are not the biggest victims of affirmative action and point to AAPIs as the population whose numbers are most suppressed by the policy. Proponents of affirmative action have also used the AAPI population to argue that ending the policy will trigger an "Asian Invasion" at highly selective universities. In reality, there is quite a bit of evidence of AAPI support for affirmative action, which is at levels that are similar to other racial minorities. If there is any issue related to selective college admissions where AAPIs have an issue, it has to do with wanting equal consideration for how changes to policies might disproportionately impact the AAPI student population.

What is a bigger issue related to AAPIs in elite colleges is how much attention it draws away from AAPIs in other sectors of higher education. People are not aware of the fact that the largest number and proportion of AAPI college participation is in the community college sector, which is also where their enrollment has been increasing at the fastest rate over the past two decades. Through my work with the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, I have found that AAPI students in community colleges (compared to their counterparts at four-year colleges) are more likely to delay matriculation after high school, enroll as part-time students, work full-time while attending college, and be the first in their families to attend college. These “risk factors” are not a part of the dominant narrative about AAPIs in higher education.

Q: Much of your book focuses on Asian populations that are not doing as well as are others. What are some of the areas within the Asian American population that need more attention in higher education?

A: One of my biggest goals for this book was to demonstrate empirically that the prevailing assumption that AAPIs are a model minority is inaccurate, misleading, and damaging for the population. Disaggregated data on the AAPI population reveal a wide range of demographic characteristics that are unlike any other racial group with regard to their heterogeneity. Generalizations about the AAPI population miss incidences where they are experiencing high secondary school drop-out rates, low rates of college participation, and low college completion rates.

Among the most vulnerable communities of AAPIs are Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders, who are often facing demographic conditions that go unrecognized on a national level. In St. Paul, Minnesota, for example, which is home to the largest concentration of Hmong outside of Southeast Asia, nearly 40 percent of Hmong children live in households in poverty, which is nearly three times the national average. Another community, Waianae, Oahu in Hawaii, is home to the largest concentration of native Hawaiians in the U.S. Among Native Hawaiians in this community, 78.5 percent of the adults have an educational attainment of "high school or less," which is nearly four times greater than the national average.

Q: How well integrated do you think Asian Americans are on colleges campuses -- compared to other minority groups?

A: There are interesting trends in the educational experiences of AAPIs relative to other racial groups. AAPIs during college have lower rates of satisfaction and engagement and distinct experiences with their identity development; they also exhibit unique challenges associated with the psychological climate. One area of particular concern for college administrators and student affairs professionals should be the higher rates of stress, anxiety, and depression among AAPIs. The engagement of AAPIs in college needs to be considered in the context of these unique psychosocial factors, particularly as they pertain to the varied experiences of a diverse population of AAPI students.

Q: With the exception of some recent high-profile appointments, Asian Americans are relatively few and far between in the senior administrative ranks in American higher education, despite considerable success at the student and faculty ranks. Why do you think this is -- and what should be done to expand the pool?

A: At about 1 percent, AAPIs have very low representation among our nation’s college presidents. This is a trend that can be found across many employment sectors; AAPIs comprise less than 1 percent of public school principals, about 2 percent of senior executives in the federal government, and only 1.5 percent of all board seats of Fortune 500 Companies.

I think what these data point to is the need for the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to identify, acknowledge, and be responsive to the lack of AAPIs in leadership and decision-making positions. One remedy would be greater inclusion of AAPIs in pipeline programs that target the underrepresentation of minorities in key occupational sectors, including academia, the federal government, and state and local agencies.


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