Diversity and Disparities Among AAPI Communities in Higher Education

The Pacific Asia

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are often perceived as highly educated “model minorities." Yet, this harmful generalization obscures significant differences that exist between diverse groups within the demographic category.

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in the United States and the Pacific Islander population is increasing at the second highest rate. These figures can be further disaggregated to reveal that while there are over 5 million Chinese Americans and over 4 million Indian Americans, minority groups like Hmong, Thai, and Laotian Americans each number fewer than 350,000 individuals. Among Pacific Islander Americans, the most populous groups are Native Hawaiians with 620,000 individuals and Samoans with over 210,000 individuals. The remaining 800,000 Pacific Islander Americans identify with a myriad of other ethnicities within the demographic category.

AAPI Sub-group Populations

The diversity of AAPI peoples and the disparities between sub-groups become readily apparent when examining access to higher education. For example, while 56% of Asian Americans hold a bachelor's degree or higher, Burmese and Bhutanese communities experience starkly contrasting rates with 65% and 75% of their populations respectively attaining only a high school level of education or less, according to Best Colleges. Pacific Islanders similarly fall short of the average Asian American educational attainment, with only 18% holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. Within the Pacific Islander category, CHamorus (also known as the Chamorros) have the highest rate of college graduates at 26% while Marshallese are among those groups with the lowest rates at 8%.

Asian American Educational Attainment
Pacific Islander Educational Attainment

To address some of these gaps, eligible colleges and universities across the United States and U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands function as Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs). AANAPISIs meet the criteria of having an undergraduate population consisting of at least 10% AAPI students as well as following guidelines concerning federal student financial aid. Notably, this designation is based on the aggregated AAPI demographic category and therefore is not necessarily focused on schools that serve the most marginalized sub-groups.

However, these institutions are now receiving more federal support to address inequities. In addition to broader funding through the American Rescue Plan, in 2021 the U.S. Department of Education awarded $43 million in grants for AANAPISIs and Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian Serving Institutions (ANNHs) and an additional $84.8 million for the Native Hawaiian Education program. These grants are used for projects ranging from general institutional support for AANAPISIs to facilitating partnerships with community-based organizations and funding research of interest to AAPI communities.

The Biden-Harris Administration has also acknowledged the need to address disparities facing AAPI populations with the recently released National Strategy to Advance Equity, Justice, and Opportunity for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Communities. This strategy highlights the need to collect and analyze disaggregated data, improve diverse language access, and combat anti-AAPI hate. It is too early to see the impacts of this strategy on the higher education landscape. However, this action plan importantly recognizes the diversity of AAPI communities and provides a commitment to address significant inequities.

Thank you to Best Colleges for their survey on Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) in higher education that served as an inspiration for this article.

Kieren Rudge is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. They are a Ph.D. student in Environmental Science, Policy, & Management at University of California, Berkeley.