What Is the Modern Day Experience of AAPI College Students?

AAPI college enrollment has grown 36% since 2000. Learn more about what colleges can do to support this rapidly growing demographic.
Updated on October 4, 2023
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  • Over one million AAPI students are currently enrolled in college.
  • AAPI students may face discrimination, leading to mental health challenges.
  • Racism and stereotyping may affect AAPI students' academic performance.
  • Students can find support through AAPI cultural centers and student organizations.

People often group Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students' experiences together. But there are over 48 ethnicities in the AAPI community. It's a diverse group with different obstacles, and therefore different experiences. That stereotyping can cause AAPI students mental health challenges, which can impact how they perform in college.

Among the 16.6 million undergraduate students in 2019, about 1.1 million (or 6.6%) were Asian and 45,000 were Pacific Islander, NCES reports.

While no two AAPI students have the same college experience, they may all benefit from a strong network of peers and mentors through AAPI student organizations and AAPI studies departments.

Understanding Academic Success

While AAPI college students do well on average in college, harmful stereotypes and anti-Asian bias impact their academic performance.

AAPI students are more likely to study business, health, and biological and biomedical sciences, according to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data on the amount of bachelor's degrees awarded in 2019-20.

Four-year college graduation rates for Asian students are the highest of any racial or ethnic demographic measured by NCES. Asian students who started their studies in 2010 had a four-year graduation rate or 50% compared to 41% overall, and they had a six-year graduation rate of 74% compared to 60% overall.

While AAPI students perform well academically, they are the least likely to seek support for their mental health. Many AAPI students are reluctant to get help for many reasons, including stigma, income, and language barriers.

AAPI students also have to contend with the model minority myth, or the misconception that Asian Americans are inherently smart, hard working, and self-reliant. Their peers', professors', and administrators' biases may make it difficult for AAPI students to get the help they need. When you're viewed as not needing support, you feel the pressure to live up to the stereotype.

Campus Racial Climate for AAPI Students

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are currently the fastest growing minority group in the United States, and colleges need to support their needs. AAPI college enrollment has increased 36% since 2000, and colleges are trying to accommodate this diverse student population and provide a welcoming and inclusive environment.

Anti-Asian discrimination and xenophobia have also increased recently. Research links increased anti-Asian discrimination to more anxiety, depressive symptoms, and sleep problems among AAPI students.

The racism AAPI students face can lead to social isolation, hypervigilance, and even self harm. AAPI individuals are less likely to access mental health services than their peers, which can exacerbate problems.

Because of the model minority myth, intersectionality, and other challenges, AAPI students may feel as if they cannot approach student services with their concerns and issues. But AAPI students should feel empowered to take advantage of tutoring, mentorship, and other resources on their college campuses.

Student Support for AAPI Students

AAPI students are a diverse group, and so are the resources they may need to succeed. Some students may need financial, mental health, or academic support — or even a mix of support services.

"Having mentors and advisors available to guide you throughout your college experience is comforting, especially because we know we have that safety blanket of advice and assistance if we ever run into any problems."

— Klark Balay, junior computer science major at Florida Atlantic University

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AAPI students can find academic and social support at AAPI student organizations, cultural centers, and AAPI studies departments. These spaces can also provide some mental health support because they may serve as a safe environment to discuss identity and lived experiences, as well as an opportunity to find mentorship and community.

AAPI student organizations and AAPI studies departments offer a less stigmatized space to discuss challenges that come with being an AAPI student. This may be a good place to start if you're unsure about receiving help from traditional counseling services on campus.

Klark Balay, a junior computer science major at Florida Atlantic University, found support and guidance in programs like the Kelly/Strul Emerging Scholars program.

"My experience as a Kelly/Strul scholar has been amazing" said Klark. "I've gotten to meet so many new people, and the staff is always very fun to work with. Any Kelly/Strul event that I attend is not only informative but also entertaining because I get to see all the friends I've made through the program in one place. Having mentors and advisors available to guide you throughout your college experience is comforting, especially because we know we have that safety blanket of advice and assistance if we ever run into any problems."

Asian American and Pacific Islander students can also look for resources outside of their college campuses. You may find support through national organizations like Stop AAPI Hate or Asian Mental Health Collective. Building a supportive network and advocating for your needs can make success in college easier.

Life After Graduation

The experiences of AAPI college graduates is as diverse as their demographic. Some AAPI students may have an easier time transitioning from college to a career than others due to factors like citizenship and English proficiency.

According to data from the New American Economy Research Fund and The Leaders Forum, almost 55% of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have a college degree. Careers in STEM are popular among AAPI graduates. About 34% of software developers and 32% of computer hardware engineers are Asian American or Pacific Islander.

AAPI graduates may still encounter racism and stereotyping after college, and there has been a significant increase in reported anti-Asian hate crimes and xenophobia during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has also led to record unemployment rates, and nearly 30% of AAPI workers aged 16-24 were unemployed in spring 2020, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

It may be beneficial for AAPI graduates to stay connected to their alma maters. Graduates may still be able to find support through the career center and alumni network. Former students could also offer support to current AAPI students through mentorship programs and clubs.

Explore more resources for our Asian American and Pacific Islander students

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While AAPI college students tend to outperform their peers in college, more should be done to create a safe environment for them on college campuses.

STEM majors are popular among Asian American and Pacific Islander students, and many graduates go on to pursue careers in business, healthcare, and tech. But AAPI students' academic performance may be affected by harmful stereotypes and the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes nationwide.

Asian American and Pacific Islander students have the right to an affirmative and inclusive learning environment. AAPI students should not hesitate to find support and speak up for what they need.

With Advice From:

Portrait of Klark Balay

Klark Balay

As a child, Klark looked up to his father, admiring his strong work ethic, dedication, and hard work. Attending college was always a clear goal, however Klark could not help but worry about the financial burden it would bring his father. With his parents' support, Klark focused his time and energy on schoolwork and extracurricular activities with the goal of securing scholarships to help offset college costs. As a junior in college and a Kelly/Strul Emerging Scholar, Klark is merging his passions for science and technology as a computer science major.

Klark believes his journey can inspire other first-generation students to try their best and plans to give back to his community.

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