The Model Minority Myth in Higher Education: Asian American Visibility Through Student-Initiated Retention Projects

by Jessie Hernández-Reyes

As of 2012, according to data from the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans have become the fastest growing group in America (Lee 1). Although the population of Asian Americans is rapidly growing and only projected to rise, there continues to be a perception of Asian Americans as a “model minority”, a community of individuals who, according to their culture/cultural values, hold the inherent intelligence, wealth, and cultural capital to succeed academically, socioeconomically, and in society at large.

The continuing perpetuation of the “model minority myth” upon this community that defines Asian Americans as inherently intelligent and academically successful, accompanied by the growth of the Asian American population in the United States over the past couple of decades has allowed higher education policy makers and educators to perceive there to be an “overpopulation” of Asian Americans in higher education who are excelling academically. However, disaggregated data and national statistics on Asian American students in higher education reveal that Asian Americans are underrepresented nationally in higher education, and that there exist large academic achievement gaps among panethnic Asian American groups. The continuing wrongful portrayal of a growing population of Asian American students on college campuses who excel in academia has allowed for higher education institutions to ignore the needs of the Asian American community, a situation that has called for creation of leadership among Asian American students on college campuses whom strive to create spaces––known as Student-Initiated Retention Projects––to retain and empower Asian American students through their cultural identity.

Current aggregated data on Asian Americans in higher education has reinforced for higher education educators and policy makers the idea of Asian Americans as a model minority who is “overrepresented” in higher education. General statistics on Asian American admission to higher education institutions, such as those claiming that about 20% of students entering classes at Ivy League universities are Asian American, and that Asian Americans make up a large percentage of the population of students at prestigious universities––such as UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, and UCLA, where they are 40%, 54%, and 40% of the population, respectively––serve to reinforce this notion. However, a look at disaggregated data of the Asian American population in higher education reveals otherwise invisible underrepresentation of Asian Americans and their sub-ethnic populations (Lee 2). Over 40% of all APA students enrolled in higher education in the U.S. attend community colleges, and in 2000-2001, Asian Pacific Americans made up only 15% of all students enrolled in two-year institutions (Lew 64). Moreover, research among APAs in community colleges show that even among the APA community in higher education, academic achievement varies by ethnicity, with some sub-ethnic groups doing better academically than other groups, as evidenced by a study conducted at the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) that found Korean Americans had the highest mean college GPA, while Filipino Americans, Japanese Americans, and Vietnamese Americans had the lowest mean GPA (Lew 68).

With institutions failing to acknowledge this disaggregated data on Asian American students at higher education institutions showing the underrepresentation of Asian American students in higher education by not engaging in efforts to help retain Asian American students and ensure that underrepresented Asian American groups are given increased access to higher education institutions, Asian American college students have taken matter into their own hands. For example, at UC Berkeley, where there is an increased underrepresentation of Pilipinos and other Southeast Asian groups such as Hmong, Laotians, and Vietnamese, Asian American student leadership has developed to create spaces such as the Pilipino Academic Student Service and Retention and Empowerment of Asian Pacific Islander Youths Consider Higher Education (REACH!) that more generally fall under the label of Student-Initiated Retention Projects (Maldonado 614). These SIRPs emphasize Asian American student retention through the development of necessary knowledge, skills, and social networks that students will need to succeed on their college campus; building a sense of commitment to their APA communities; and larger challenging of oppressive social and institutional norms (Maldonado 620). Through these three concerns of focus, Asian American students have created spaces that are based off of cultural identity through commitment to their APA communities, that also help Asian American students gain the social and cultural capital needed to maintain their underrepresented presence on their respective college campus. As long as higher education institutions continue to ignore Asian American student needs that include the underrepresentation of APA communities on campus, the creation of SIRPs such as the ones above will be necessary to preserve and grow the current underrepresented APA college student presence.


  • David Emiliano Zapata Maldonado, et al. “The Student-Initiated Retention Project: Theoretical Contributions and the Role of Self-Empowerment.” American Educational Research Journal, vol. 42, no. 4, 2005, pp. 605–638.,
  • Lee, Jennifer and Min Zhou. 2015. The Asian American Achievement Paradox. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Lew, Jamie. 2007. “A structural analysis of success and failure of Asian Americans: A case of Korean Americans in urban schools.” Teachers College Record, 109(2), 369-390.

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