Asian Americans overall obtain high levels of formal education, but an analysis of recent census data reveals large disparities between Asian American ethnic groups.
The percentage of high school graduates is as high as 96 percent among Taiwanese Americans and as low as 61 percent among Hmong Americans, according to a report [PDF] released last week by the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice. The rate of bachelor's degrees ranges from 12 percent among Laotians to 73 percent among Taiwanese.
These lower rates of educational attainment put some Asian American ethnic groups on par with Latinos and African Americans, the report found. Sixty-one percent of Latinos and 81 percent of African Americans have high school diplomas; 13 percent of Latinos and 18 percent of African Americans have bachelor's degrees.
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All together, 86 percent of Asian Americans have high school diplomas, and 49 percent have bachelor's degrees, the center's analysis of data from the 2007-09 American Community Survey found. Compared with other racial groups, Asian Americans have the highest rate of bachelor's degrees, but their high school graduation rate is second to that of whites (90 percent).
Even though the data include both American-born and immigrant Asians, they reflect the various pathways Asian immigrants take to the United States, said Daniel Ichinose, director of the Demographic Research Project and Census Information Center at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, which co-authored the report.
The majority of Asian immigrants who became legal permanent residents in 2010 – 62 percent – entered as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens or under family-sponsored preferences. Twenty-three percent immigrated under employment-based preferences.
"Educational attainment among Asian Americans in this country is really sculpted and shaped by immigration policies," Ichinose said.
For example, 52 percent of South Korean immigrants came to the U.S. under employment-based preferences. According to census data, 92 percent of Koreans hold high school diplomas and 52 percent have bachelor's degrees. On the other hand, just 1 percent of Vietnamese immigrants came to the U.S. under employment-based preferences. Vietnamese educational attainment was among the lowest of Asian Americans: 72 percent graduate from high school, and 27 percent finish college.
The report also notes that many Asian Americans face language barriers. Nearly three out of four speak a language other than English at home, and about one-third are limited-English proficient.
The report's findings are particularly significant in California, which has more Asian Americans and more English learners than any other state. Tens of thousands of students who speak Asian languages – the most common are Vietnamese, Filipino, Cantonese, Hmong, Korean and Mandarin – attend California public schools.
Nationwide, 16 percent of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students are English learners.
The diversity of Asian languages "certainly creates challenges in terms of educating youth," Ichinose said. "Language access … does play out in our schools. We certainly want education policymakers to address that."
The report calls for including Asian Americans, particularly underrepresented groups such as Southeast Asians, in affirmative action programs in education. It also says that government, corporations, foundations and other stakeholders need to invest in bilingual K-12 education and that more funding is needed to provide English-language programs for adults.