A Deceiving Label? There's Growing Debate among Educators on Whether the Umbrella Asian Pacific Islander Label Conceals Disparities among Asian American Students or Provides Political Power in Numbers

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Whenever Southeast Asian students meet with Channy Rasavong, they discuss a multitude of personal and school-related topics. In fact, Rasavong and others credit such institutional assistance for the steady growth in Southeast Asian enrollment at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

But nationally, support services aimed at not only Southeast Asians but all Asian Pacific Islander students remain scarce in higher education, experts say, despite studies showing worrisome disparities among subgroups in degree attainment, retention and family income. Long-held social stereotypes and the popular but deceptive "model minority" myth have arguably lulled many U.S. college leaders into believing Asians across the board do not need outreach in order to succeed.

This mindset fuels a growing discussion among educators: Is the Asian Pacific Islander label appropriate for all of its subgroups? Does this label still benefit students or has it evolved into more of a hindrance?

It depends who you ask. And, the variety of opinions illustrates not only the complexity of such a discussion, but also of the subgroups themselves.

"As a label, it may cover too much, too many different kinds of people," says Dr. Mitchell Chang, professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California, Los Angeles. "There are people lagging way behind other people who fall under this label."

However, Ling-chi Wang, a longtime activist and associate professor emeritus of the University of California, Berkeley, says college students--even recent immigrants--still benefit from the Asian Pacific Islander umbrella more often than not. "There is a shared experience of what it means to be an Asian in America."

Under the Statistics

A spectrum of distinct ethnicities falls under this country's Asian Pacific Islander construct. The 2000 Census listed 24 categories for people of Asian descent and another 24 for those of Hawaii, Samoa and other Pacific islands. Yet generally, U.S. college students identify themselves on applications and other forms as Asian Pacific Islander, rather than by national origin.

Rasavong says the young people frequenting his UWM office--Southeast Asian American Student Services (SAASS)--consider themselves part of a broader landscape. About 90 percent of them are first-generation college-goers descended from refugees who fled communist regimes in 1975 or more recently.

"They consider this country their own," says Rasavong, SAASS senior adviser. "In some ways, they're more American than Asian. They hardly have a connection to Laos or other countries."

Researchers say more college-backed offices such as SAASS--which provides career and academic counseling, financial aid advice and other referrals--are sorely needed throughout the country. While 64 percent of U.S. Asian Indians and 48 percent of Chinese hold a bachelor's degree or higher, according to the census, barely 8 percent of U.S. Hmong and 8 percent of Laotians do.

"In terms of educational access and opportunity, some of the subgroups are having a tough time," says Chang, a principal investigator of the 2007 report "Beyond Myths" that examined characteristics of Asian students over a multidecade period. He adds that well-intentioned efforts to improve graduation rates often are initiated by students themselves lack the resources and experience that university staff can--and should--provide.

Furthermore, the demographic variables within each Asian Pacific Islander subgroup, Chang and others say, merely underscore the need for institutional outreach to students.

Nationally, fewer than 14 percent of Chinese Americans, for instance, lived below the poverty line in 1999, according to census data. But in Brooklyn, N.Y., where 60 percent of Asians are Chinese, the median household income for Asians was less than $36,000. …