Colleges and universities that serve students who are Asian-American or Pacific Islanders and that also have large shares of low-income students won a victory in their search for greater recognition and federal funding last week: they’re now on the list.
That would be the official list of categories of minority-serving institutions  maintained by the Education Department but used by agencies throughout the federal government for grants and other programs, including support for research centers, computer donation, internship opportunities and earmarked research dollars. Historically black colleges and universities are perhaps the best-known of the government’s minority-serving institutions, but the list also includes tribal colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and institutions where at least half of the students are members of racial minorities, among others.
“It’s really incredible that campuses had no idea that they could have had access to this funding,” said Robert Teranishi, an associate professor at New York University who worked with the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund to push for the institutions’ inclusion. Now that they are on the list, Asian-American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions -- known as AANAPISIs -- are now eligible for at least 42 federal programs representing $500 million in funding, he said.
The government defines an institution as an AANAPISI if at least 10 percent of its students are Asian-American or Pacific Islanders, and if at least 50 percent of its entire student body has demonstrated financial need, measured by participation in federal financial aid programs.
The category was created in the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, adding an additional category eligible for federal grants and creating new pools of money for the institutions serving Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, as well as other new categories of minority-serving institutions.
That initiative gave the colleges access to $10 million in Education Department grants for two fiscal years ending in 2009. Since then, the program has continued, although at reduced funding levels. But the institutions were not included on the Education Department lists that other agencies use to give money to minority-serving institutions, Teranishi said.
Those programs include everything from research support from the Department of Health and Human Services to the NASA Science and Technology Institute for minority-serving institutions. Although some programs are earmarked for specific types of colleges and universities, most frequently historically black colleges, others are open.
The scholarship fund raised the issue at a 2010 meeting and began requesting inclusion on the list, and Education Department officials responded, Teranishi said.
Expanding the tent of minority-serving institutions has proved controversial with some groups in the past, such as when the Education Department created new categories, adding “predominantly black” institutions, with student populations that are at least 40 percent African-American , and expanding the definition of colleges serving Native Americans to include institutions not controlled by tribes. The concerns sprung both from legal worries about racial designations for eligibility and from the reality that a growing number of institutions are competing for a shrinking pot of money.
In general, the Asian-serving institutions have had trouble attracting the visibility in funding and policy that colleges serving other minority groups have enjoyed. In part this is because the designation is new, and even the scholarship fund was not established until 2003. “Just like other minority-serving institutions, they’re doing a lot of important things for higher ed institutions as well as students with unique needs,” said Teranishi, who recently wrote a book about Asian-Americans in higher education . “In my opinion, the Asian-American and Pacific Islander populations are too often overlooked and misunderstood by the higher education community.”
Asian-serving institutions suffer from the burden of the “model minority” stereotype, he said: because some Asian immigrants and their children are well-represented in higher education, especially at elite institutions, it’s assumed that they’re doing well overall.
In fact, the population -- which includes 48 different ethnicities, including South Asians, Southeast Asians, East Asians and Pacific Islanders -- includes a wide variety, from highly educated immigrants admitted under employment preferences to other groups who are low-income, still learning English, marginalized or vulnerable.
“There’re certain segments of the AAPI population that are doing very well, and others that are just struggling,” Teranishi said. In studies of poverty, health disparities and academic performance, some Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders are dealing with many of the same issues as other underrepresented minorities.
So despite the prevalence of Asian-Americans at some high-profile institutions -- they are the dominant ethnic group at the University of California at Berkeley, which has not been designated an AANAPISI -- many colleges and universities eligible for the designation have a lower profile. But the list also includes large research universities, such as the University of Maryland at College Park and the University of Illinois at Chicago, which are already competitive in federal research funds.
"When you can take resources and target it at these institutions, they can do important things," Teranishi said.