WASHINGTON -- As they explained why they were forming a new association for colleges that serve Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students, higher education officials at a news briefing Monday cited themes they’ve discussed many times over. They lamented how this specialized population is growing faster than any other and yet lacks institutional support; how Asian students’ geographic region of origin can be a significant predictor of what type of college they’ll attend and whether they’ll succeed; and how the general public continues to wrongly believe that Asian students -- the “model minority” -- exceed in all aspects in college.
Of course, because many people do brush aside the obstacles Asian students face, conversations about these issues have often fallen on deaf ears. The Asian Pacific Islander American Association of Colleges and Universities, which formally launched at Monday’s briefing, hopes to change that. It is designed to leverage these ideas and the data that back them up to support the institutions that enroll the most AAPI students. The panelists at Monday’s event represented the leadership of the new association’s board of directors.
“Too often, AAPIs are excluded from broader discourse on education, and other national priorities and research have largely failed to adequately represent the needs, challenges and experiences of AAPI students,” said Robert T. Teranishi, an associate professor of higher education at New York University. APIACU will advocate for all Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions (which under the federal definition  must enroll a certain percentage of Asian American/Pacific Islander students and meet criteria regarding Pell eligibility), with an eye to improving college access for Asian students.
But understanding the plight of AAPI students is crucial for more than just those individuals, Monday’s panelists said. Teranishi cited preliminary data from a forthcoming report that portray AAPI students as critical to the success of President Obama’s college completion agenda. (Teranishi is also a principal investigator for the agency that wrote the report, the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education.) Enrollment of AAPI students at postsecondary education institutions grew fivefold between 1979 and 2009, Teranishi said, and the AAPI population in the U.S. is projected to reach nearly 40 million by 2050.
Yet overall rates of growth do not fairly represent the complexity of Asian demography and educational attainment. The U.S. Census Bureau has identified 48 different ethnic groups within the AAPI racial category, and some fare far less well than others. For example, about half of Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander students (such as Vietnamese and Native Hawaiian) will leave college without earning a degree, making them three to five times more likely to drop out than are East Asians and South Asian students (such as Korean and Indian).
On top of that, Teranishi noted, most AAPI students attend community colleges, where fewer than one-third of students who intend to earn a degree do so within six years. “These populations need to be targeted in the institutions they attend and these institutions need to be responsive to their unique needs and challenges that are contributing to their high rates of attrition and low completion rates during college,” Teranishi said.
Teranishi describes these challenges further in his book Asians in the Ivory Tower: Dilemmas of Racial Inequality in American Higher Education . But the idea of Asians as the model minority -- which seems to be at the root of many problems AAPI students face -- often manifests most obviously in the public arena, as was the case this year when a white woman attending the University of California at Los Angeles posted a YouTube video  of herself complaining about Asian students talking loudly in the library and having their families come to visit. That wasn’t the first time  Asian students have been the butt of public jokes or comments made by their peers.
Intensifying this stress is the often extreme pressure from professors and families for Asian students to perform well, Neil Horikoshi, president and executive director of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, told Inside Higher Ed this month . He added that the lack of Asian administrators in higher education -- fewer than 1 percent of college presidents are Asian -- translates into little institutional support for AAPI students. “Serving AAPI students is a complex endeavor,” Horikoshi said Monday, and the sort of data Teranishi presented are crucial to this pursuit. “Everything is connected,” Horikoshi said.
For 15 of the 52 colleges recently designated as Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions (a category that the U.S. Department of Education officially recognized just last year), funding from the federal government is helping to address some of the issues facing AAPI students. These institutions are particularly important in the big picture of higher education, Teranishi said, because many AAPI students are drawn to them: while AAPI students make up only about 1.5 percent of the student body nationally, the colleges that got federal grants in 2009 enrolled nearly 1 in 10 AAPI undergraduates, or 89,000 total.
Looking at the broader landscape, there’s still significant institutional concentration: nearly two-thirds of AAPI undergraduate students are enrolled in a total of just 200 colleges and universities. These students are disproportionately first-generation students, immigrants, non-native English speakers, and from low-income backgrounds. (Antonio R. Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, pointed out that his organization can work well with APIACU in the long term because its members' student populations face many of the same demographic issues.)
“We know there are AAPI communities who do not have access to higher education,” Mark Mitsui, president of North Seattle Community College, one of the first-designated AAPI-serving institutions, said Monday. A network for these colleges is “a policy response to the model minority myth that posits that AAPI students don’t struggle,” are over-represented in higher education, and are attending mostly elite universities.
Ruby G. Moy, who will act as president and CEO of the APIACU, said she’s optimistic that the association will be able to engage with federal agencies and lobby for more funding. “In order to make a real change in the lives of AAPI students, we must provide them with resources that increase their access to postsecondary education and support them during college,” Moy said. “The steps we will take will help colleges and universities improve their rates of success, and help our AAPI graduates have a seat at the table.”