These groups of Asian-Americans rarely attend college, but California is trying to change that

FRESNO, Calif. – Like many students, Trong Chang has dreamed 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 student at California State University Fresno who grew up in this Central Valley city, chose to study close to home, and she’ll probably remain on campus for her master’s degree. But for someone from an ethnic group that contradicts the Asian-American “model minority” myth, even this is a rare achievement.

As one group of Asians who don’t go to college in large numbers, the Hmong 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.

Chang’s parents are from Laos and spent a year in a Thai refugee camp before immigrating to the United States. She rarely even talked to her parents about college while growing up.

“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 college-going rates — especially compared with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Americans, who are actually more likely than other Americans to earn bachelor’s degrees.

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

The same problem is sneaking up on higher education nationwide.

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

This shift has vastly complicated things on campus.

“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 the California State University’s 23 campuses have participated 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 has helped result in a big jump in the number of Hmong students, which has nearly tripled from 500 in 2010 to 1,400 this year.

For surrounding Fresno, whose population of 32,000 or so Hmong ranks second in the United States only to that of Minneapolis-St. Paul, this hard-won increase in college-going is a promising sign and evidence of the benefits of encouraging first-generation students of all races to get higher educations. Poverty and gang violence have burdened the Hmong community since families began arriving from war-torn Southeast Asia in the 1970s.

“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 for 20 years, including as a social worker. “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 have focused largely on black, Hispanic, and low-income students in recent years, but Asian-American and Pacific islander students from widely divergent backgrounds have tended to be grouped together under the “model minority” stereotype — a misconception that Asian students know how to handle themselves in school.

In Fresno, where a Hmong student group sponsors roadside cleanups on a state highway, new outreach efforts helped attract Soua Kong, another Hmong student, to the campus.

Like Chang, Kong grew up in Fresno, Kong with 10 siblings and Chang with five. Both said they are torn between wanting an education and the pressures of a patriarchal culture that expects women 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 so as not to burden her family.

“I kind of feel helpless because I’m not paying anything,” she said. “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.”

Family and community pressures are common among Southeast Asian students. At the University of California at Berkeley, for example, Vietnamese-American senior Giao Tran said she was eager to graduate so she could help persuade more Vietnamese students to go to college.

“The reason I do my best here at Berkeley is because I owe it to my community,” said Tran, 22, a political science major who grew up in Orange County’s Little Saigon. “But I feel so insulated by my academic work. When I start thinking about my community, it’s really hard for me to do my work.”

The University of California and California State University systems started collecting data in 2009 on individual Asian and Pacific ethnicities rather than lumping them into one group. But the schools have made it difficult to obtain those figures, researchers and community groups say, presenting another challenge to efforts to attract more college students.

A proposal in the California Legislature, Assembly Bill 176, would require the universities and the state’s 112 community colleges to release this data starting next year. Having complete information is a key step in helping Asian-American families prepare for college, said Robert Teranishi, a professor of education and Asian-American studies at UCLA.

“The reality is these students are increasingly diverse, they’re increasingly immigrants, and they’re the first in their families to go to college,” Teranishi said. “The data is not really being used in a way that is helpful to institutions or informing their efforts.”

The data also is likely to reveal another challenge: 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.

Cal State Long Beach invites Cambodian high school students to campus basketball games during recruitment campaigns to make college more attractive to boys. Because Cambodian families often have no means of transportation, the university buses the students to campus events.

Up the coast at UC Berkeley, only five of the 40 or so Hmong students are men, said Dao Chang, a 21-year-old Hmong sociology and pre-pharmacy senior from Fresno. Chang, who said she grew up knowing nothing about college until high school, said she hopes more male and female Hmongs will attend college as alumni return to their communities and inspire children.

“If you don’t know how to work through the system, it can be tough,” she said. “There needs to be more effort from the Hmong community. A lot of it has to come from the college students.”

Southeast Asian students predict dramatic changes among future generations.

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

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.