NEW YORK - 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, US Representative David Wu said at a news conference yesterday to release the report by a national commission. But Asian-Americans are clustered 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," said Wu, a Democrat from Oregon. "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, prepared by two New York University research institutes and the College Board, more than 44 percent included in the group Asian-American (but excluding Pacific Islanders) have earned a bachelor's degree. That is 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 with 43.8 percent of Filipinos and an identical proportion of Koreans.
On standardized tests, Asians are often disproportionately represented among the highest scores, but they are 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 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 United States 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."