With their high visibility on elite college campuses, Asian-Americans have picked up a nickname that makes many uncomfortable: the "model minority."
But a new report argues that Asian-Americans' reputation for academic success has obscured important variations within the group — and created a false sense that all their education needs are being met.
As a group, Asian-Americans have earned above-average incomes and achieved high average levels of education, said Rep. David Wu, D.-Ore., at a news conference Monday to release the report by a national commission, two New York University research institutes and the College Board, which owns the SAT exam. But they are clustered both at both the high and low ends of the scale.
"The conversation in our society has had this high-income, high-education group completely overshadow this other group of folks," Wu said. "It has been an education process to convince folks that we are not an ethnic group, every one of which has just graduated from Harvard."
Relative to other ethnic minorities, Asian-Americans have, indeed, been extremely successful by many academic measures. They substantially outscore other minority groups on average scores on the SAT college entrance exam. And according to the report more than 44 percent included in the group Asian-American (but excluding Pacific Islanders) have earned a bachelor's degree, 20 percentage points higher than the national average.
In the prestigious University of California system, the number of Asian-Americans enrolling each fall has shot up 59 percent in the decade since a ballot initiative ended racial preferences in admissions.
But the study notes often overlooked disparities in achievement among the 48 Asian and Pacific Islander groups that fall into the category under the census.
Just 7.5 percent of Hmong immigrants, 9.2 percent of Cambodians and 7.7 percent of Laotians had earned a bachelor's degree in 2000, compared to 43.8 percent of Filipinos and an identical proportion of Koreans.
On standardized tests, Asians are often disproportionately represented among the highest scores, but also among the lowest — doomed by poor English skills. And while their numbers have surged at many high-profile schools, enrollment among Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders is actually increasing nearly twice as fast at community colleges as at four-year ones.
Jih-Fei Cheng, coordinator of the Asian and Pacific Islander Student Center at California State Polytechnic, Pomona, said the "model minority" idea is a burden for many Asian-American students, who comprise about one-third of the student body there.
"What's insidious about that idea now is that a lot of the youth that are raised now in the U.S. of Asian descent, whether they're from families that have been here five or six generations, or just one or two, they are pressured by this 'model minority' myth by their families and society," he said.
But the report also argues the "model minority" argument can mislead policy-makers.
Robert Teranishi of NYU, one of the study's authors, said Asian-American students face challenges including "being invisible, people assuming they don't have any educational needs, they don't need services, they don't need to be included when it comes to particular policies."
Also, he added, "there's some emerging trends that we've found relating to use of mental health services, suicide rates" indicating Asian-American students may be at particular risk — though he cautioned the data there are limited.
The report dances somewhat gingerly around the topic of affirmative action, cautioning against using the academic success of Asian-Americans to demonstrate racial preferences aren't necessary — that the system is adequate for groups that work hard. It calls that argument an excuse to ignore deep problems in the education system.
"In reality, there are no winners" in a college system where the number of black and Latino students has plummeted with the end of affirmative action, the report argues.
In a phone interview, Teranishi acknowledged the end of the affirmative action significantly boosted the number of Asian-Americans in places like the University of California system. But he says it's not clear that the narrow admissions criteria that replaced the old system have benefited Asian-Americans overall.
"Just as some Asians have probably benefited from the narrow definitions of merit that have been applied in the UC system, I think there are also a lot of Asians that probably are disadvantaged because of that," Teranishi said.