Inside Books: Robert Teranishi on Asian American Students in Higher Education

Robert Teranishi’s new book is Asians in the Ivory Tower: Dilemmas of Racial Inequality in American Higher Education (Teachers College Press, 2005). Teranishi is associate professor of higher education at the Steinhardt’s Department of Administration, Leadership and Technology, co-director for the Institute for Globalization and Education in Metropolitan Settings, and a faculty affiliate with the Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy. He is the recipient of the 2010 Martin Luther King, Jr. Faculty Award from NYU and was recently namedone of the nation’s top “up-and-coming” leaders by Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

Asians in the Ivory Tower looks at the experiences of Asian Americans in higher education. You have stated that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) ‘remain at the margins, as an outlier in our national conversations about race.’ Why do you think that is the case?

A number of factors contribute to the exclusion of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) in America’s discourse on equity in higher education. A primary reason is that race in American society is defined, for the most part, in Black and White terms, which challenges scholars, policymakers, and educators to place AAPIs within this racial paradigm. This is not only problematic for AAPIs, but also a factor that has impacted the inclusion and representation of Latinos and Native Americans in racial discourse on equity. In the book, I discuss why it is necessary to think more critically about how race and racism operates in American society, through the lens of access to and equity in U.S. higher education for AAPIs.

AAPIs are excluded from the equity discourse in higher education because of a perception that they are all high-achieving students – a model minority – and do not warrant attention by educators, institutional leaders, and policymakers. This is problematic because it leads to a conclusion that AAPIs are a homogenous group, which disregards the extent to which they are actually a compilation of many sub-groups that vary by ethnicity, social class, language backgrounds, and immigration histories. Different sub-populations vary widely in their rates of educational attainment, which is driven in part by differences in the conditions through which they experience educational opportunities and mobility. In fact, disaggregated data on the AAPI population reveals a wide range of demographic characteristics that are unlike any other racial group with regard to their heterogeneity.

What are some of the unique challenges that AAPI students face in their pursuit of higher education?

One significant issue for AAPIs is the extent to which the homogenization of the population misses incidents of where AAPIs are struggling. Among the most vulnerable communities of AAPIs are Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders, who are often facing social 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% of Hmong children live in households in poverty, which is nearly three times the national average. Another community, Waianae, Hawaii in Oahu, is home to the largest concentration of native Hawaiians in the U.S. Among Native Hawaiians in this community, 78.5% of the adults have an educational attainment of “high school or less,” which is nearly four times greater than the national average.

Also, the false perception of AAPIs as a high achieving group causes people to overlook the large number and proportion of AAPIs in community colleges. In fact, the largest number and proportion of AAPI college participation is in this sector of higher education, which is also where their enrollment has been increasing at the fastest rate over the past two decades. AAPI students in community 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.

You write that “the face of stellar academic achievement” has become synonymous with the AAPI population, and that “this stereotype has been engrained in the American vernacular.” What’s wrong with this positive stereotype?

While the academic community has focused largely on the harmful effects of negative racial stereotypes, there is has been little research on how positive stereotypes work in our society. Stereotypes – whether negative or positive – lead to exaggerated, preconceived ideas about social groups. In the book, I examine the implications of the oversimplified perception of AAPIs as a model minority. What I found is that the model minority myth leads to the conclusion that AAPIs do not experience any challenges associated with education and mobility. It leads to the perception that AAPIs are a homogenous group, which overlooks incidences where they are experiencing high secondary school drop-out rates, low rates of college participation, and low college completion rates.

Essentially, stereotypes are bad for all groups and should not be the basis for any decisions regarding educational research, practice, and policy. Oversimplifying the complexity of race and racism is not only misleading, it is often damaging for marginalized populations. In the context of federal policy, for example, the lack of acknowledging AAPIs as a minority population has resulted in their exclusion in federal programs that provide resources to minority communities. These are resources that are needed for the most vulnerable sub-groups of AAPIs whose needs are being masked by the perceptions of the AAPI population in the aggregate.

What is some of the work that schools/educational systems need to do to ensure educational equity for AAPI students?

AAPIs need to be recognized for who they are as a unique population, and not just in the context of who they are relative to other racial groups. There are many instances where AAPIs need greater attention in research, practice, and policy. For AAPIs, we need to be more responsive to their unique educational experiences and challenges, which varies from one sub-population to the next. Some AAPIs face challenges with their immigration and language backgrounds, while others may be facing problems with challenges associated with poverty and being the first in their families to attend college. There are other students attending highly-selective universities, like NYU, and are experiencing lower rates of academic and social engagement and lower rates of satisfaction during college. Because the population is so diverse, educators, practitioners, and policymakers need to think of a range of issues that AAPI students may be facing.

Additionally, we need to think about other AAPIs in our education system. At about one 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% of public school principals, about 2% of senior executives in the federal government, and only 1.5% of all Board seats of Fortune 500 Companies. These data point to the need for the public, private, and non-profit sectors to identify, acknowledge, and be responsive to the lack of AAPIs in leadership and decision-making positions.

Read an interview with Robert Teranishi in Inside Higher Education.