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More than 200 colleges and universities are eligible to receive federal funding designated for Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander–serving institutions this year, but only a fraction of them are applying.

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More than 200 colleges and universities are eligible to receive federal funding designated for institutions with large numbers of Asian American, Native American and Pacific Islander students this year, but the majority are not applying.

Just 32 of 192 eligible institutions received this funding last year, according to a report from the Postsecondary National Policy Institute.

Experts say a lack of knowledge about the Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander–serving institutions, or the federal designation AANAPISI—it formally became the newest of the 11 minority-serving institution designations in 2007—and its competitive nature contribute to this disparity.

But perhaps the biggest barrier to accessing AANAPISI grants is in the bureaucratic process of distributing funds for minority-serving institutions, or MSIs, which puts some restrictions on institutions that qualify for multiple designations.

That’s because, as colleges serve an increasingly diverse population of students, many AANAPISIs are also eligible to apply for money earmarked for other MSI categories. In many cases, federal policy prevents a college from claiming money for both designations at the same time. And since AANAPISI is the newest and one of the least-funded designations, college leaders are more likely to apply for money under one of the more well-known, better-funded MSI designations.

To be eligible for AANAPISI funding, at least 10 percent of a college’s student body must be Asian American, Native American or Pacific Islander, according to federal guidelines.

“Because institutions are faced with choosing one grant over another, we fear that Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students will continue to be left behind in the higher ed student equity and student success agenda,” said Rowena M. Tomaneng, president of San José City College and head of the board of Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education. “This barrier also pits MSIs against one another and may negatively impact campus climate within dual designated institutions.”

U.S. senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii introduced a bill in 2015 that would have eliminated this policy barrier, but it never moved out of the Senate.

Federal Recognition

But a recent effort by the Biden administration to raise awareness about AANAPI-serving institutions is bringing renewed attention to how that funding can help students—and the barriers that often prevent eligible colleges from accessing it.

Two weeks ago, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation declaring Sept. 24–Oct. 1 AANAPISI Week. He reiterated his commitment to “strengthening these critical institutions” while touting a $5 billion investment (via the American Rescue Plan) in AANAPISIs. According to a White House news release, the money went toward emergency financial aid for students and other efforts “to help students stay enrolled, lower costs, keep faculty and staff employed, and slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Erika L. Moritsugu, deputy assistant to the president and the White House’s senior liaison on Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander matters, said in an email, “The proclamation is a testament of this commitment and the role of the Administration to uplift the vital role of Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), providing a critical pathway to higher education for millions of Americans and to secure safety and stability in the middle class.”

Moritsugu added that Biden sees and values the contributions of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, who “represent a diverse constituency of over 50 ethnicities with a variety of identities, cultures, histories, and backgrounds; many of [whom] are indigenous, first in their families to graduate college, and those underrepresented students who have faced a legacy of discrimination in our nation.”

The attention brought on by Biden’s proclamation is welcomed by the AANAPISI community, which wants more funding to expand access to higher education. More than 20 million Americans identify as Asian American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That number is expected to double by 2060.

“It’s supporting the visibility we need,” Tomaneng said of the proclamation. “When the public is receiving information about the historical contributions and ongoing challenges and barriers our communities face—not just in education but across other sectors—it goes a long way to advancing our efforts to make change.”

Since AANAPISI funding first became available about 15 years ago, Tomaneng has worked on writing federal grants designed to serve students in that demographic.

As of fall 2020, AANAPISIs enrolled 412,680 Asian American and Pacific Islander students, who made up 21 percent of those institutions’ total enrollment, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Funding Helps Outcomes

Prior to taking the helm at San José City College, Tomaneng was the associate vice president of instruction at DeAnza College, another community college in California, where close to 40 percent of the student body is Asian. Tomaneng helped secure AANAPISI funding for DeAnza that supported a learning community program called Impact AAPI, which provides academic support for students and a culturally conscious curriculum facilitated by the Asian American and Asian Studies Department.

The program at DeAnza was a success, according to a 2014 report from the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, which analyzed the results of some of the first AANAPISI-funded programs. Compared to students who didn’t participate, DeAnza’s Impact AAPI students were more likely to transition from remedial to college-level English courses, get passing grades in them and earn associate degrees.

Improved academic outcomes for low-income Asian American and Pacific Islander students at most of the colleges with AANAPISI funding—including increased persistence, degree attainment and transfer to four-year institutions—provide “evidence for the impact of federally-funded campus programs,” the report said.

Nearly 10 years later, DeAnza is still operating the Impact AAPI program, though the college has since taken over much of the program’s funding.

“Colleges have a responsibility here, too,” Tomaneng said. “These programs should be institutionalized beyond the life of a grant.”

But since leaving DeAnza, she’s seen how AANAPISI funding to start up such programs can be challenging for colleges to get in the first place.

‘Legislative Issue’

San José City College is eligible for both Hispanic-serving and AANAPISI funding. But since it already received several HSI-designated grants, the college was ineligible to apply for some of the biggest AANAPISI grants.

The U.S. Department of Education awarded a total of $16,367,591 in AANAPISI grants in fiscal year 2023 under Title III, Part A of the Higher Education Act, which outlines grant eligibility criteria. However, the law says that colleges that already have an MSI-designated grant under Part A (or Title V in the case of HSIs) can’t apply for another MSI designation under Part A, even if they meet the demographic criteria.

There are some workarounds, however.

Colleges that have already accessed one Part A grant but meet the demographic requirements for another MSI designation can apply for additional money under Title III, Part F. But Part F funding for AANAPISIs is significantly less than what’s set aside for Part A: in fiscal year 2023, the Education Department awarded $4,581,199 in AANAPISI grants under Part F, less than a third of its Part A awards.

“Schools have to decide which one they want to apply for and get money from,” Mike Nguyen, an assistant professor of education at New York University, said of the designation restriction. “That’s a legislative issue. Congress needs to pass a law to break down that barrier.”

The choice often comes down to how likely an institution is to receive the funding, which is typically greater for other MSI designations than it is for AANPISIs. While the U.S. Education Department awarded just under $21 million in total grants for AANAPISIs last fiscal year—up from $8 million in 2019—it awarded $227.7 million through its Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program, which excludes any institution that already has a Title III, Part A grant from applying.

“Hopefully Congress will address this, because schools are multicultural,” Nguyen said. “They’re not made up of just one particular racial group.”

‘Model Minority Myth’

Limited public understanding of the nuances of minority student populations has also driven misperceptions that Asian American and Pacific Islander students don’t need money from the federal government to succeed in college.

“There’s this model minority myth,” Nguyen said. “Yes, there are Asian Americans that do well in school. But there are specific communities within these two racial groups that have similar educational challenges like other communities of color. They needed an MSI designation to serve and support them.”

There are close to 50 different ethnicities, including people who speak some 300 different languages, within the broader population of Americans who identify as Asian American and Pacific Islander. Within those communities, there are also major divides in income levels and educational attainment, according to a 2022 report from the Postsecondary National Policy Institute.

For example, 22 percent of Burmese, 26 percent of Laotian and 28 percent of Pacific Islander adults over the age of 25 had completed an associate degree or higher. In comparison, 64 percent of Japanese, 65 percent of Korean and 80 percent of Indian adults had finished an associate degree or higher.

Before the AANAPISI designation was created, those nuances were lost among clustered data, said Jacqueline Mac, an assistant professor of higher education at Northern Illinois University.

“There would be nationwide reports on how Asians were doing just as well as our white students, and the conversation would stop there,” Mac said. “But community advocates and policy makers knew that wasn’t true. They knew the constituents; they knew the anecdotes.”

For example, Southeast Asian communities include people (or their descendants) who fled from their home countries to escape war—or genocide in the case of Cambodians—and are more likely to face socioeconomic barriers to higher education than their peers with East Asian roots.

Mac said Biden’s proclamation of AANAPISI week is an important step toward highlighting those differences.

“It recognized a designation that a lot of people thought was unnecessary because of the model minority myth,” she said. “That umbrella category really masked and actually did a lot of damage to communities that didn’t have good access to education or experience the same kind of educational success.”

Even still, Mac said those stereotypes about Asian American students persist.

She cited the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawing race-conscious admissions, which sided with a group of Asian American applicants who sued Harvard University for allegedly discriminating against them in admissions decisions.

“Asian Americans were used as the group to say, ‘This is why affirmative action doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do,’” Mac said. “It’s an example of what happens when there’s this societal misunderstanding of whole groups, and that group being used to dismantle racial equity policies.”

Culturally Responsive Programs

Caitlin Ho, director of the AANAPISI Project at the City University of New York’s Hunter College, where 30 percent of students are from Asian backgrounds, said creating a higher education community environment where students can process anti-Asian rhetoric is another reason why AANAPISI funding is critical to student success.

The program has existed for several years and uses federal grant money to connect students with academic support, provide research opportunities and mental health supports, and train faculty and staff on how to best support students in a culturally responsive way.

When some of those students were harassed or assaulted during the pandemic because of anti-Asian bias fueled by incorrect public perceptions that Asian people were the source of the novel coronavirus, the program was there to help.

“Students were scared to leave their houses,” Ho said. “We had some programming to let students check in. But we also brought in the Asian American Studies Program to contextualize the fact that, unfortunately, anti-Asian racism is not new. It comes from a long history of how Asian Americans were just not seen as belonging.”

Ho said some of the colleges in the CUNY system have reached out to Hunter for help with supporting Asian American students, but “a lot of them are more aware of their HSI status than their AANAPISI status.”

Despite some of the restrictions on accessing federal funding for more than one MSI designation, Ho encourages other college to apply for whatever AANAPISI funding they can. “Those dollars would allow them to do this really rich programming and create visibility for Asian American students on their campuses.”

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