How One Little-Known Minority Group Illustrates a Looming Problem for Colleges

As demographics shift, higher education copes with new kinds of students.

Kathy Tran, a Vietnamese-American UC Berkeley sophomore, and Giao Tran, a Vietnamese-American senior. Photo: Alison Yin

FRESNO, Calif. — Like many students, Trong Chang dreams of going away to graduate school after she gets her bachelor’s degree.

But Hmong women just don’t do that.

Chang, a 22-year-old psychology major at California State University, Fresno, chose to study on this campus close to her home, and she’ll probably remain here for her master’s degree. But for someone from an Asian ethnic group that is a far cry from the myth of Asian-Americans as a “model minority,” even this is a rare achievement.

The Hmong, a group of Asians who don’t go to college in large numbers, help illustrate the complex changing demographics of students arriving at American universities and colleges: increasingly nonwhite, low-income, and first-generation.

Among the 281,000 Hmong in the United States, 38 percent have less than a high school degree, about 25 percentage points lower than both the Asian-American and U.S. averages, according to the Center for American Progress. Just 14 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree, less than half the national average.

When Chang was growing up, she rarely talked about college with her parents, who immigrated from Laos.

“I don’t know, but they probably don’t have any education,” she said. “They helped my grandparents in the fields. They can’t really help you get into college.”

Upending the stereotype that most Asian-American children go to college, the Hmong and other Southeast Asian immigrants, including Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese, have markedly low rates of college attendance — just 13 percent of Laotians, 14 percent of Hmong and Cambodians and 26 percent of Vietnamese have bachelor’s degrees. That compares to the U.S. average of 29.6 percent.

This presents a particular challenge in California, which has the highest number of nearly every Asian-American group. Chronic budget problems have made it difficult for colleges and universities to afford new support programs. At precisely the time that policymakers are trying to increase the number of people with degrees, language barriers and high poverty levels have vastly complicated the route to and through college for students from some of these backgrounds.

The same problem is sneaking up on higher education nationwide.

This year, the National Center for Education Statistics predicts, the number of whites in primary and secondary schools will be overtaken for the first time by the number of Hispanic, black, Asian, and Native American students. In 10 years, nearly half of high school graduates will be nonwhite, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which tracks this.

“We realized there needs to be some targeted support services for this population,” said Simon Kim, an associate vice president at California State University, Long Beach who has helped that school reach out to the area’s many Cambodians.

About half of California State University’s 23 campuses participate in the system’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Initiative, which runs college fairs and other events for underrepresented groups and translates Cal State materials into Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian, Marshallese, Samoan, and other languages.

At Fresno State, that participation has helped lead to a big jump in the number of Hmong students, which has nearly tripled from 500 in 2010 to 1,400 this year.

“The way that Hmong families are looking at education is changing,” said Kim Cole, a Fresno State education professor who has worked with Hmong families and students as both a teacher and social worker for 20 years. “Now we have professors, lots of students in grad school. The culture as a whole is more open to education.”

College support services and outreach programs in recent years have focused largely on black, Hispanic, and low-income students. Many low-income Asian-American and Pacific Islander students were overlooked, often grouped together under the “model minority” stereotype—the misconception that all Asian students do well in school and do not need support.

In Fresno, new outreach efforts helped attract Soua Kong, another Hmong student, to the campus.

Like Chang, Kong grew up in Fresno as part of a large family — Kong has 10 siblings and Chang has five. Both said they are torn between wanting an education and the pressures of a patriarchal culture in which women are expected to be “marriage-ready.”

“My parents really emphasized education, but they don’t really know what it is,” Chang said. “They were very persistent that I stay home. I have to push them outside their boundaries.”

One of Kong’s brothers went to the University of California Berkeley, but Kong, a 19-year-old nursing freshman, said she chose the more affordable Fresno State, hoping to reduce the cost to her family.

“It’s kind of a gamble because I’m going to college so I can make more money, but I can’t contribute until then,” she said.

At the University of California at Berkeley, Vietnamese-American senior Giao Tran said she is eager to graduate so she can be an example of what is possible.

“I owe it to my community,” said Tran, 22, a political science major who grew up in Orange County’s Little Saigon.

Another challenge is getting Southeast Asian men into college. Students, counselors and researchers say far fewer Cambodian and Hmong men than women go to college, and that their completion rates are alarmingly low. At UC Berkeley, only five of the roughly 40 Hmong students are men, students report.

Cal State Long Beach is using basketball as bait, inviting Cambodian high school students to campus games during recruitment as part of a campaign to make college more attractive to boys. The university even buses the students to games and other campus events.

Southeast Asian students predict continued progress for the next generation as the group’s college attendance — and, as a result, its prosperity — improves.

“Maybe when I grow up and have kids I’ll tell them their mom went to Cal,” said UC Berkeley sophomore Kathy Tran, a 19-year-old Vietnamese-American. “I couldn’t say that about my mom. And maybe they won’t need financial aid.”

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Matt Krupnick

Matt Krupnick is a New York Times contributor and freelance journalist.