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Published September 28, 2021


Filipino, Vietnamese and Thai students are ‘invisible’ victims of inequality in STEM fields

Filipino students are nearly 60% less likely to major in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields than other Asian American students, according to the University at Buffalo study.

The research, which sought to identify disparities in the STEM pipeline and college selectivity rates among Asian Americans, also found that scores for Filipino, Vietnamese and Thai students were lower on average in 12th grade math courses than for other Asian American students, while Chinese, Indian and Sri Lankan students were the most likely to enroll in highly selective universities.

The findings, published in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, highlight the need for higher education policymakers, administrators and instructors in the U.S. to understand the specific needs of a range of underrepresented Asian American ethnic subgroups and develop sustainable reform policies.

“The model minority stereotype — that Asian immigrants in the United States achieved upward social mobility through their own efforts without institutional support — renders particular Asian American subgroups invisible victims of racism and excludes them from the discussion on issues of justice and equality,” said co-author Hyunmyung Jo, PhD, postdoctoral researcher in the UB Graduate School of Education.

“While it is the case that Asian Americans are overrepresented in STEM fields relative to other non-white groups, the question remains, who are these Asian Americans who are overrepresented?” said Lois Weis, PhD, co-author and SUNY Distinguished Professor of educational leadership and policy.

Other investigators in the UB Graduate School of Education include first author Chungseo Kang, PhD, postdoctoral researcher; and Seong Won Han, PhD, associate professor of educational leadership and policy.

Debunking the model minority myth

Asian Americans — a term that includes more than 20 different ethnic subgroups with a broad range of languages, cultures and histories — are largely misrepresented as a homogenous racial group, said Jo.

The study analyzed the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2009 High School Longitudinal Study, which contains data on the achievements of more than 26,000 students during high school and through eight years after graduation. Asian American students included in the study were categorized into five ethnic subgroups: Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese and Thai, Indian and Sri Lankan, and Korean and Japanese.

Student academic performance was measured by 12th grade math scores, and college major selection was examined across both 4-year and 2-year colleges.

“The most socioeconomically and academically disadvantaged Asian subgroups — such as Burmese and Hmong, among others — were not included in the study due to their lack of inclusion in the original dataset,” said Han. “Representation in large-scale data is important for improving equity in access to educational opportunities and ensuring appropriate educational intervention programs reach Asian subgroup populations in need.”

Among the findings:

  • Filipino students were nearly 60% less likely to choose a STEM major than other Asian American subgroups.
  • Female Asian American students were 46% less likely to major in STEM than their male counterparts.
  • Vietnamese and Thai students were more likely to choose a STEM major when enrolled at a 2-year college, and those odds dramatically decreased when they enrolled at a 4-year school.
  • Chinese, Indian and Sri Lankan students were more likely to enroll in highly selective 4-year colleges than other Asian American subgroups.
  • Chinese, Indian, Sri Lankan, Korean and Japanese students earned, on average, higher 12th-grade math scores than Filipino, Vietnamese and Thai students.

The study also found that among Asian American students, high school math achievement is linked to pursuit of a STEM major. Immigrant generation status and high school type — defined as public versus private school — did not impact major selection.

Having parents with a graduate degree raised the odds of students selecting STEM majors, as well, according to the study. More than 70% of the parents of Chinese, Indian and Sri Lankan students attained a graduate degree, which was double the percentage of Vietnamese and Thai parents who received graduate education, said Kang.

“The analysis debunks the widespread perspective that Asian American students have uniformly high academic performance,” said Kang. “Further discussion is needed on the trajectories in the STEM job market for Filipino, Vietnamese and Thai students. Opportunities for relatively lower-paying STEM careers and access to 2-year colleges are predominantly offered to particular subgroups, by virtue of high school math and science course availability. This is in sharp contrast to the more demanding and advanced-level opportunities offered to other populations.”

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