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Report calls for end to grouping of Asian-American students in one category

Source: iStockphoto/CEFutcher

When Harvard University issued a news release last month about the freshman class it had just admitted, the announcement included information about the racial and ethnic make-up of the newly admitted students. Asian-Americans, the release said, would make up 20.9 percent of the class. Native Hawaiians were grouped with Native Americans, and together those two groups would make up 2.3 percent.

When the College Board released its most recent report on SAT scores, racial and ethnic breakdowns were provided. In one category -- with impressive mean scores -- were Asian, Asian-American and Pacific Islanders.

Both examples (and there are many more easily to be found) suggest Asian-American academic success. But a report released Thursday calls for the end to such data reporting. It is time to disaggregate data about Asian-American students as much as possible, says the report, issued by the Educational Testing Service and the National Commission on Asian-American and Pacific Islander Research in Education. The failure of most schools and colleges to do so has resulted in key problems facing Asian-American groups being "overlooked and misunderstood," said Robert T. Teranishi, associate professor of higher education at New York University and principal investigator for the report, during a news briefing.

Aggregated data "conceals significant disparities," Teranishi said.

The report's authors -- clearly aware of the stereotype of uniform academic success for Asian-Americans -- provide data on the educational attainment (disaggregated of course) of different Asian-American subgroups. Then the report describes how a few colleges and universities have moved toward more nuanced data collection about Asian-Americans, and calls for more colleges to do the same. The report does not set some minimum standard for Asian-American data disaggregation, but suggests that many colleges are far short of where they should be.

And the report argues that just as colleges and other institutions use data to identify problems and track the impact of various strategies, they must do so for different Asian-American subgroups, not all of which are doing as well as the "model minority" image would suggest.

This table, produced in the report, from U.S. Census data, shows subgroups starting with those whose highest level of education attainment for adults is most likely to fall short of a high school diploma.

Educational Attainment of Asian-American Subgroups

Group Less Than High School Diploma Bachelor's Degree or Higher
Hmong 37.9% 14.7%
Cambodian 37.4% 14.1%
Laotian 33.8% 12.4%
Vietnamese 29.4% 25.8%
Chinese 19.3% 51.5%
Thai 16.8% 43.8%
Bangladeshi 16.6% 49.9%
Pakistani 13.4% 53.9%
Indian 8.8% 71.1%
Korean 8.3% 52.7%
Filipino 7.9% 48.1%
Sri Lankan 7.6% 57.4%
Indonesian 7.3% 48.7%
Japanese 5.3% 47.7%
Taiwanese 4.8% 74.1%

A key theme of the report is that it is possible for colleges to collect and analyze disaggregated date. The University of California System is held up as a positive example. In 2009-10, the university system changed its classification system, following a student-led campaign. That effort was prompted by student newspaper articles that noted rising Asian enrollments in ways that suggested there were no educational problems facing Asian groups.

This table shows the subgroups on which the university collected data before and after the switch.

University of California Undergraduate Application Categories for Asian-Americans

Old System After 2009-10
Chinese/Chinese-American Chinese/Chinese-American (not Taiwanese)
East Indian/Pakistani Pakistani
Filipino/Filipino-American Filipino/Filipino-American
Japanese/Japanese-American Japanese/Japanese-American
Korean/Korean-American Korean/Korean-American
Vietnamese/Vietnamese-American Vietnamese/Vietnamese-American
Other Asian Other Asian
Pacific Islander Other Pacific Islander
  Asian Indian
  Sri Lankan

The report stresses that only by asking about this range of Asian backgrounds can colleges spot trends they might otherwise miss. There is not a single admission rate for Asian-Americans to the University of California or its campuses, the report notes. The rate for Taiwanese-Americans is 7.7 percent higher than the average rate for all Asian-Americans, while the rate for Hmong is 13.1 percent lower. Such data might suggest the need for more outreach to Hmong students, the report says. Looking at aggregate data would hide the issue.

Some college groups have been moving to give more options to Asian applicants. The Common Application changed its application around three years ago, so that checking "Asian" online prompts a drop-down menu and the question "Which best describes your background?" Applicants can then select among: China, India, Japan, Korea, Pakistan, Philippines, Vietnam, Other East Asia, Other South Asian and Other Southeast Asia. For the "other" options, applicants then can write in the group with which they identify.

The Common Application based the options on the most populous groups in the United States.

Data from the Common Application show that, given the option, the vast majority of applicants will select an Asian subgroup (and some will suggest more than one). During the 2012-13 admissions cycle, 121,815 applicants (or 17 percent of the total) selected Asian as their overall category, but and all but 1,499 picked a subcategory. Here's the breakdown.

Demographic Boxes Checked by Asian Applicants on Common Application

China 43,249
India 19,055
Korea 15,604
Philippines 9,487
Other Southeast Asia 6,635
Vietnam 6,029
Japan 4,846
Pakistan 3,875
Other East Asia 3,018
Other South Asia 2,640
Multiple countries/regions 5,878
No country/region selected 1,499

Don Yu, special adviser at the U.S. Department of Education, said at the press briefing that there may be problems with disaggregation at colleges with very small Asian-American populations. In such cases, he said, students might feel that their privacy was violated with data that was granular.

Teranishi stressed, however, that there was more that just about every college could do, by designing disaggregation efforts that reflect the colleges' students and the communities served.

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