The Asian American College Student as Model Minority: The Myth, The Paradox and The Deception

Daren R. Mooko

Despite the "Model Minority" myth, Asian Americans are facing discrimination in admission policies at exclusive, ivy-league schools across the country. The Model Minority myth works to provide university officials with the claim Asian Americans are "overrepresented" on their campus. Additionally, this manuscript examines patterns of Asian Americans in seeking and utilizing support services on campus, specifically counseling and psychological services, and the relation to the Model Minority Myth.

In his preface, "The Anomaly of Japanese Americans" to his book Japanese Americans; Oppression and Success, William Petersen (1971) described the Japanese American population like this: ". . . not only are Japanese Americans better than any other segment of American society, including native whites [sic] of native parents, but they have realized this remarkable progress by their own almost unaided effort . . ." (p. 4). The Japanese American population was one of the first Asian communities to be extensively researched as a culture. Much like other research, what was "discovered" about Japanese Americans was soon applied and transposed on to other Asian populations. The above description has been quipped "Model Minority" (Petersen, 1966) and has been categorically applied to all Asian populations.

Japanese Americans are not the only Asian population on our college and university campuses today, however. Today, the term "Asian" encompasses at least 29 different ethnic groups (Sue & Sue, 1990). The research this author conducted discovered only a few studies that differentiated the 29 ethnicities under the category of "Asian." This manuscript will explore the myth of "Model Minority" and how that stigma influences the image of the "successful" Asian American student in higher education. Additionally, this myth also has implications for Asian American enrollment trends in higher education as well as the general trends for Asian Americans to utilize support services on campus. First, the term "Asian American" will be clarified for purposes of this work.

Who Are Asian Americans?

There are 29 different ethnicities that have come under the category of "Asian" (Sue & Sue, 1990). However, most of the research utilized for this work limited the studies to basically five ethnicities: Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Pilipino and Southeast Asian. The category of "Asian" also includes two more distinctions: gender and U.S.-born Asians and non-U.S.-born Asians. Because of the limited depth of existing research, "Asian" in this work will be limited to the above five ethnicities, both women and men and U.S.-born students, unless otherwise specified.

According to the 1970 census, there were 1.4 million Asians in the United States, and that figure jumped to 3.5 million in 1980 (Hsia, 1988). The number of Asian Americans has almost quadrupled from 1970 to 1985, accounting for an estimated 5.1 million in September of 1985. Hsia (1988) stated, "Higher education enrollment figures for the past decade reflected demographic changes as well as enrollment trends" (p. 123).

In 1984, there were approximately 210,000 Asian American students attending four-year institutions, which is almost double the number of Asian American students in 1976, and 151,000 Asian American students in two-year institutions (Hsia, 1988). The 361,000 Asian American students in higher education accounted for roughly 3.1% of the college population (Hsia, 1988). These are seemingly low numbers when looking at the entire college population and are certainly a minority of students on campus. However, this student population has been given the title "Model Minority."

The "Model Minority" Myth

The commonly held version of the "Model Minority," as it applies to Asian Americans, refers to the apparent success, educationally, economically and socially, of the Asian American population to assimilate to Western culture (Ahn Toupin & Son, 1991; Cho, 1994; Hasegawa, 1994; Hsia, 1988; Kitano, 1969; Kitano & Daniels, 1988; Sue & Sue, 1990; Takagi, 1992; Takaki, 1989; Wei, 1993). A myth or title like that seems harmless, or at least one to which a population of people might not take offense. However, this label connotes different images, perceptions and stereotypes for today's Asian American community.

Milyoung Cho (1994) compares the "Model Minority" myth to the recent appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Thomas has become a symbol for the "Establishment" to claim that racism is not a problem in this country because this is a case of a Black man who can be socially and economically successful without " 'hand outs' and affirmative action" (Cho, 1994). Similarly, when Asians are academically successful, "the powers that be use their [Asian American] accomplishments as proof that the system works, that racism must not be operative, that if the 'model minority' can do it, anyone can" (p. 257-258). This not only creates tension among students of color, but enables college administrators across the country to resist the goals of affirmative action and other methods to help students of color succeed.

Although the "Model Minority" myth seems harmless due to its perceived "positive" nature of a stereotype, it is, in fact, harmful. In the mid-1980s, "Japan-bashing" took on horrific proportions in the United States and on college campuses due in part to Japanese corporations such as Sony, Toyota and Honda succeeding economically in the States. Takagi (1992) relates incidents of anti-Asian sentiment stemming from the "Model Minority" myth:

Articles in the popular press reported that some white [sic] students claimed M.I.T. stood for Made in Taiwan and that U.C.L.A. stood for University of Caucasians Living Among Asians. On many college campuses, college seniors only half-jokingly advised freshmen to avoid classes with high Asian enrollments . . . advice based on the belief that white [sic] students 'don't have a chance' against all that Asian American 'unfair competition.' (p. 60)

This sentiment is concurred by Ahn Toupin and Son (1991) who claim the "Model Minority" myth places unique and burdensome stress on Asian Americans. On college and university campuses, "non-Asians experience the model minority as a threat to their grades, jobs and to their future status, and Asian Americans sense a high level of expectation for academic performance" (Ahn Toupin & Son, 1991, p. 403-404). Additionally, Ahn Toupin and Son (1991) claim the "Model Minority" myth and the "whiz-kid" image creates pressure for Asian Americans to succeed which is indicated by identity crises and emotional problems.

The myth of "Model Minority" helps explain recent trends in enrollment for Asian Americans as well as patterns toward seeking support services on campus. The assumption that Asian American college and university students are successful is a fundamental premise for the "Model Minority" myth.

"Successful" Asian American Students

Academically, Asian American students are believed to be succeeding on college and university campuses across the country (Sue & Okazaki, 1990; Nagasawa & Espinosa, 1992; Hsia, 1988; Sue & Sue, 1990). This perception of academic success perpetuates the myth of "Model Minority." Most research defines success in comparison with other racial populations. Sue and Okazaki (1990) reported that Asian Americans exceeded the national average for high school and college graduates and that the graduation rate was higher among Asian American students than any other. Sue and Okazaki (1990) also indicated that, according to the College Board in 1989, Asian Americans' average score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) was 934; whereas the average score of all other students was 903. This report further documented the average high school Grade Point Average (GPA) of Asian American students was 3.25 and all other students' average was 3.08. In some research, the question is no longer, "are Asian Americans able to succeed in higher education?" but rather, "why are Asian Americans academically successful?"

Much of the current debate has centered around two explanations. The first explanation holds that Asian American culture is focused more on academic achievement and that emphasis can be traced to the home (Nagasawa & Espinosa, 1992). Scholars such as Sue and Okazaki (1992) believe the Asian American culture cannot be the only consideration. Instead, relative functionalism can help to explain academic success.

The cultural explanation explores the educational practices of different countries from which Asian Americans descended. Because the Asian American population is a relatively new group of people to immigrate to the United States, many of the cultural values are still strong. Nagasawa and Espinosa (1992) stated that generally, the academic success of Asian Americans "is viewed as a logical outcome of traditional Asian values that stress hard work, discipline, and respect for authority" (p. 137). Sue and Okazaki (1992) also identified some cultural values that help explain academic success:

. . . demands and expectations for achievement and upward mobility, induction of guilt about parental sacrifices and the need to fulfill obliga- tions, respect for education, social comparisons with other Asian-American families in terms of educational success, and obedience to elders such as teachers. (p. 915-916)

However, Sue and Okazaki claim that these cultural values are based on studies that are not rigorous and on research that provides little support. Instead, Sue and Okazaki assert that relative functionalism is a viable explanation for academic success. Relative functionalism holds that educational success and the importance of education of Asian Americans are highly influenced by the opportunities for upward mobility. Where Nagasawa and Espinosa claim that educational success of Asian Americans can be explained through cultural factors, relative functionalism claims economic upward mobility is the cheif motivation for Asian Americans. Asian Americans believe upward mobility cannot be reached by any other means such as politics, sports, entertainment, or leadership. As Sue and Okazaki (1992) stated, "To the extent that mobility is limited in non-educational avenues, education becomes increasingly salient as a means of mobility . . . education is increasingly functional . . . when other avenues are blocked" (p. 917).

Further research does not prove or disprove either the cultural influences explanation or the relative functionalism hypothesis. It is possible that both theories can apply to Asian American college students. However, the purpose of exploring the "success" image of Asian American students is to provide some context and insight to that population of students on our campuses. The image of the "successful" Asian American college students lends itself to the perpetuation of the "Model Minority" myth, but does not help to understand recent enrollment trends of Asian Americans in exclusive colleges and universities.

Enrollment Trends: Ceilings and Quotas

Charges of discrimination against Asian Americans in college admissions has been the focus of increasing controversy over the last ten years (Au, 1988; Espiritu, 1992; Hsia, 1988; Takagi, 1992; United States Commission on Civil Rights, 1992; Wei, 1993). As the Asian population in the United States grows, so does the number of applicants to selective institutions of higher education. However, the number of students admitted to these selective institutions is not growing in proportion to the number of applicants. The controversy surrounding Asian Americans' application to and enrollment in higher education charges admission offices with placing quotas and ceilings on Asian Americans.

According to the United States Commission on Civil Rights (1992), the main concern was whether selective institutions of higher education were " . . . placing a ceiling on the number of Asian American students they would

admit . . . whether higher standards of admission were being applied to Asian American candidates as a means of reducing or containing the number of Asian American students" (p. 106). The "higher standards" the Commission on Civil Rights referred to were the two sets of admissions criteria: "objective and subjective" standards and the "admissions context" (Takagi, 1992). This criteria came under fire by the Asian American communities in regard to the enrollment trends of selective universities, beginning in 1983.

In Asian Americans in Higher Education and at Work, Hsia (1988) stated,

Asian American college applicants are beginning to face additional hurdles. They must increasingly take into account the handicaps associated with their own ethnicity. Asians are now considered to be 'overrepresented' in many institutions in higher education, and accepted at lower rates than other applicant groups, including the majority. (p. 93)

In 1983, The East Coast Asian Student Union (ECASU) reported that at 25 East Coast institutions, the number of Asian Americans admitted had barely increased, despite a dramatic increase in applicants (United States Commission on Civil Rights, 1992). Similarly, the United States Commission on Civil Rights reported that the Asian American Task Force on University of California Admissions, in 1985, claimed the decrease in Asian American enrollment at the University of California at Berkeley was due to discriminatory policies. The Asian American student enrollment at Berkeley dropped 21% between 1983 and 1984. Specifically, Brown and Berkeley were among the institutions investigated for their admissions patterns regarding Asian Americans.

Brown University

The United States Commission Civil Rights (1992) reported the Asian American admittance rate between the years of 1980 and 1983 had dropped below the total admittance rate of all students. When the Brown University's Asian American Student Association (AASA) did not receive an adequate response from the administration about these particular numbers, they released a report in 1983 that outlined several findings which included: 1) between 1982 and 1983 the admittance rate for Asian Americans dropped from 46% to 26%, and 2) between 1984 and 1987, the Asian American admittance rate dropped from 26% to 14%, despite the fact the class-wide admittance rate remained almost constant. These findings led AASA to two conclusions: first, Asian American and White applicants were comparable in their academic qualifications and second, the "acceptance of the 'model minority' myth of Asian Americans by university administrators and admissions officers led to inattention to, and disparate efforts in, recruiting Asian Americans" (p. 111).

Four months after this report, the Brown University Corporation Committee on Minority Affairs (COMA) issued their own report which acknowledged the "differential admission rates between whites [sic] and Asians constituted an 'extremely serious' problem, as were the attitudes of some officials in the admissions office" (Takagi, 1992, p. 65). Perhaps the "attitude" problem COMA alluded to was the instance where the Director of Admissions is alleged to have said, "the task of decreasing the admitted class could be accomplished by cutting the first ten Kims off the top of the list" (Takagi, 1992, p. 65).

The University of California at Berkeley

The United States Commission on Civil Rights (1992) chronicled the controversies at Berkeley. The Asian American Task Force on University of California Admissions responded to the sharp decline of Asian American enrollment in their 1985 report. In 1989, the Academic Senate's Special Committee on Asian American Admissions investigated this situation and issued its first report. This Special Committee found three occurrences where Asian American candidates were discriminated against in the application process. The first finding was the university's decision to cease guaranteeing admission to candidates who qualified for the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) which benefited economically disadvantaged students. Of the 146 EOP applicants, 90% were Asian Americans. Regarding this policy change, the Special Committee stated,

It is possible that some or all of the decision-makers were motivated . . . by a desire to reduce the enrollment of Asian Americans. There is some second-hand evidence, or at least internal allegations, that some people in the Campus Administration were thinking in this way. (p. 115)

The second finding was the administration's raising the minimum GPA for admittance in the College of Letters and Sciences (United States Commission on Civil Rights, 1992). The minimum score requirements for college entrance examinations, however, was not. Asian American applicants were more likely to be admitted on the strength of their GPA and not their test scores. The change in policy, "raising only the minimum GPA threshold had the effect of disadvantaging Asian American applicants . . . "(p. 116).

The third finding of the Special Committee claimed that on December 28, 1983, the Director of the Office of Admissions and Records announced that "permanent aliens" not meeting a minimum SAT-verbal score would be redirected to other campuses. Initially, administration repeatedly denied its existence. However, in 1988, the California State Assembly Subcommittee on Higher Education released two internal memoranda establishing a minimum score of 400 on the SAT verbal test for immigrant applicants only. These memoranda were written by the Director of the Office of Admissions and Records.

The "Model Minority" myth certainly is a factor in the discriminatory enrollment patterns practiced by many selective colleges and universities. The ceilings and quotas are clear examples of how an external image of the "Model Minority" can affect the Asian American. However, the internalization of the "Model Minority" myth also has implications for Asian American students and their willingness to seek out support services on campus.

Patterns Toward Seeking out Support Services

Several studies have indicated that Asian Americans underutilize psychological and counseling services (Atkinson, Whiteley & Gim, 1990; Sue & Sue, 1990). This conclusion is alarming, especially for student affairs professionals. In the research conducted, "support services" refers mainly to counseling and psychological services. Although there are many facets to the relationship of Asian Americans with support services, the issue of assimilation directly relates to the myth of "Model Minority" and the subsequent patterns toward support services.

One premise of the "Model Minority" myth claims Asian Americans have successfully assimilated into the American culture. Despite this belief, some Asian Americans have struggled with assimilation. Shah (1992) recounts her experience coming to the United States from Cambodia and the adjustments with which her children struggled. Talking about her daughter, Shah stated,

She was brainwashed. You go to American school, you accept the system, and you can't think for yourself anymore. You just mimic the system. She [a Cambodian social worker from Minnesota] said, 'Just think of them as roses that have been transplanted to this place. Give them nutrients and watch them grow.' I said, 'We are not flowers or plants, we are human beings and demand our rights.' (p. 122-123)

Phinney, Chavira and Williamson (1992) claimed that there has been less of an effort to emphasize ethnic pride in the Asian community, compared to other minority groups, especially among college students who more strongly endorse assimilation. This finding by Phinney et al, along with the above account by Shah, illustrates the struggle Asian American students experience with identity.

Assimilating, however, does not automatically bring acceptance or social comfort for Asian American students. Phinney et al (1992) stated, "Asian students who favor assimilation may be more at risk for a negative group identity because of the absence of a strong sense of group belonging" (p. 310). Hasegawa (1994) stated the paradox arising from Asian American identity occurs when an Asian American student chooses to assimilate to the White culture and is no longer accepted in the Asian American culture. This creates a stressful dilemma and paradox for many Asian American students: while assimilating would push the student to the margins of the Asian American identity-maintaining an Asian American identity invokes the myth of "Model Minority" and thus pushes the student to the margins of the majority.

If Asian American students are unable to fulfill the image of "Model Minority" nor the Asian American identity, they are apt to have low self-esteem and feel more isolated. Ahn Toupin and Son (1991) claim this leads to greater depression, a situation a campus counselor may not be able to address due to the patterns of Asian Americans seeking psychological help. Atkinson et al (1992) claims, "Several studies have documented that Asian Americans . . . underutilize psychological counseling services. One explanation . . . is the shame and stigma associated with psychological problems in traditional Asian cultures" (p. 155).

The shame and stigma associated with psychological problems is not the only explanation for why Asian American students underutilize psychological and counseling services. Robert Suzuki, President of California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, believes the lack of Asian American counselors on many college campuses discourages Asian American students from frequenting the counseling center (Burkett, 1994). In 1985, the California State University at Northridge (CSUN) investigated why its Asian American students rarely utilized the counseling center. Burkett (1994) reports the university came to the conclusion that "The cat-like agility and grace of the Asian American psyche adapts so efficiently to higher education demands that Asians need never visit a university counselor" (p. 28). Suzuki, then the Vice-President for Academic Affairs for the CSUN, disagreed with the conclusion.

Suzuki advised, "simply put an Asian counselor in the center and Asian students will flock to it" (Burkett, 1994, p. 28). Burkett (1994) reports Suzuki was right. Within weeks of placing an Asian counselor in the center, the new Asian counselor "met a torrent of distraught Asian undergrads seeking consultation and advice" (p. 28). Clearly, providing Asian American students with a counselor who can relate to being Asian and who has similar life experiences directly affects the willingness of Asian students to receive psychological counseling.

There are more factors involved in the pattern toward seeking help. According to Sue and Sue (1990) Asian Americans may be suspicious of counselors in that they may be agents of the "Establishment" and are attempting to conform them to the majority. Atkinson et al (1992) add that Asian Americans considered friends and family more credible and a greater source for help than counselors or psychologists.

Implications for Higher Education and Student Affairs

The extent to which some of these institutions are a reality will, naturally, vary from campus to campus and from region to region. The author also realizes the use of generalizations to illustrate the partial experience of Asian Americans in colleges and universities. However, this does not prevent student affairs professionals from gaining a clearer insight to what may be happening on their campuses. The same care and thoroughness student affairs professionals exhibit when applying student development theory must be used when analyzing and assessing the status and college experience for Asian Americans. Critical to an analysis of Asian American students and their experience in college is acknowledging the "Model Minority" myth is a deception.

In the effort to try and assess the experience of Asian American students on campus, student affairs professionals can start by asking key questions concerning the "Model Minority" myth and its application. To what degree does the "Model Minority" myth exist on your campus? Do the student affairs professionals on your campus possess the knowledge and skills to effectively detect both subtle and blatant damage the "Model Minority" myth is causing Asian American students?

An assessment of campus climate on each college and university is critical in beginning to address contemporary issues facing Asian American students. Similar to Berkeley and Brown, the degree to which the "Model Minority" myth has infected policies and decisions must be recognized and exposed. Admissions and enrollment were the focus of the investigation at Berkeley and Brown, but how does the "Model Minority" myth penetrate the classroom and/or the residence halls?

Current research shows the pattern for Asian Americans in seeking support services on campus is minimal. As student affairs professionals, how do we reconcile this cultural value with our role as student advocate in a helping profession?


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Daren R. Mooko, fourth generation Japanese, works with ALANA students at UVM and is a Resource Person for The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond for Asian American Issues. Daren is currently the advisor for the Asian American Student Union at UVM.