‘Model minority’ myth hides reality

Times Staff Writer

The success of some Asian American and Pacific Islander college students has given rise to a myth of the “model minority” that obscures important differences within a diverse population whose educational needs are often neglected, according to a report released Monday.

The concentration of Asian American students in a relatively small number of elite universities, including UCLA and UC Berkeley, has raised fears of a “takeover” of the upper tiers of higher education in the United States, according to the report, a collaboration between a national commission, research institutes at New York University and the College Board. In reality, more than half of Asian American students attend community colleges or minimally selective four-year colleges, the report stated.

Many of the students come from low-income families with limited English language skills, and vary widely in test scores and other educational benchmarks, the report found. Their increased participation in higher education closely tracks that of Latino and African American students, as racial and other barriers have fallen in the last few decades, the report said.


“We are not an ethnic group every one of which has just graduated from Harvard,” said Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), speaking at a Washington, D.C., news conference to announce the report.

There “are two populations . . . one high-income and high-education attainment, and then a second group, equally important, that is low-income and low-education attainment,” Wu said. “The [first group] has completely overshadowed the existence of the other group of folks.”

Many Asian American students do excel in higher education, particularly in California, where they make up roughly 40% of admissions to the flagship Los Angeles and Northern California UC campuses, UCLA education professor Mitchell Chang said.

Fueling the success has been U.S. immigration policy, which has favored entrance for highly educated and trained elites from Asia and Europe, the report stated, noting that those immigrants tend to push their children into advanced degrees and professions.

As of 2000, 44.1% of Asian Americans had obtained college degrees, according to the report. The average in the United States is 24.4%, the report stated.

But many Asian groups in the U.S. fell far short of those achievement levels. Almost 60% of Hmong -- from southern China and Southeast Asia -- that same year had less than a high school education, according to the report.


Pacific Islanders fared poorly. Only 15% of Native Hawaiians, for example, had college degrees.

Chang said the lower income groups do not have the stellar high school preparation or other advantages of the more affluent ones.

The majority of Asian American students at UCLA are from low-income families, Chang said. Their choice of colleges is between UCLA and the Cal State system, not pricey private schools, he said.

They often feel “tremendous pressure” to fit the model minority stereotype, continuing to struggle, for example, in science or math programs when they would be better suited to other areas of study.

“They end up having to drop out, or don’t do well enough to get into medical school,” Chang said.

“For the general public, there’s an idea these Asians are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, but they’re often struggling in ways very similar to other groups,” he said. “We shouldn’t assume they’re all going to do well for some magical or mystical reasons.”


Chang and Don Nakanishi, director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center, conducted a study last year that paralleled some of the findings of the new report. Nakanishi said he hoped that the new study, by directly attacking common myths, would dispel the misrepresentation of the Asian American experience in higher education.

“Among many of us who have worked on issues of Asian Americans in education . . . is a fear there will be a backlash to this growth in what would appear to be a large number of Asian American kids, particularly at public institutions like the University of California,” Nakanishi said. “We haven’t quite seen it, but it is something we worry about.”

The report, he said, demonstrates the diversity of issues Asian American students face.

“All the kids aren’t from suburban high schools,” he said. “They do have some special needs that come from the kinds of backgrounds they come from.”