College Guide for Asian American and Pacific Islander Students

Asian American and Pacific Islander students face unique challenges when attending college. Find helpful resources for AAPI students in this guide.

portrait of Debbi Johnson-Rais, Ed.D.
by Debbi Johnson-Rais, Ed.D.

Updated May 23, 2022

Reviewed by Angelique Geehan

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College Guide for Asian American and Pacific Islander Students
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Over one million Asian and Pacific Islander students were enrolled in undergraduate programs in the U.S. in 2019, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Although Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students are often considered a "model minority" as a whole, they are a group that contains about 50 ethnic subgroups. These subgroups face varying challenges when it comes to accessing higher education and being successful in college.

Support includes appropriate financial aid services, academic and mental health counseling, connection to student organizations, and adequate cultural representation among faculty and staff.

Key Trends for AAPI College Students

Asian and Pacific Islander students made up about 6.6% of the total undergraduate population in 2019, says NCES. According to the Pew Research Center, Asians made up about 7% of the overall U.S. population in 2021.

Four-year college graduation rates for Asian students are the highest of any racial or ethnic demographic measured by NCES, at 50% for students who began their studies in 2010. This population also has the highest graduation rate within six years, at 74% for students starting college in 2010. Thirty-one percent of Pacific Islander students graduated within four years.

Top programs of choice for Asian and Pacific Islander students include business, health, and biological and biomedical sciences, according to NCES data on the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in 2019-20.

More than 18.4% of AAPI workers in the U.S. are employed in STEM fields, according to a 2021 report from New American Economy and The Leaders Forum.

Challenges and Barriers to Success

Diverse Population: The AAPI community is made up of distinct subpopulations. It is impossible to generalize characteristics among these subgroups of ethnically diverse individuals, all of whom have differing immigration histories and experiences of integration after arriving in the United States.

While attending college, Winston Yan, a third-year student at University of California, Santa Barbara learned "just how small our communities are, compared to other populations. Sometimes I struggled with this, growing up in a largely minority-populated area, but college was a place to adapt and expand, and the communities here certainly helped me do that." Even among the largest AAPI populations, there is great diversity in educational attainment, leading to income disparities after graduation.

Finances: In a 2016 study by the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, 70% of AAPI students surveyed report their choice of college was limited by financial constraints. The report also found that a majority of survey participants responded that they had not received enough information about financial aid options and that the FAFSA application process was difficult.

Campus Climate: Reports of anti-Asian hate crimes have increased in recent years, particularly since the onset of Covid-19. Although AAPI students might experience similar challenges as those from other groups underrepresented in higher education, this reality may be overlooked given widespread assumptions regarding this population's success in higher education.

Mental Health Support: AAPI students seek mental health support less than any other racial or ethnic group. Reasons for this may include internalized variations of the "model minority myth," immigration status concerns, lack of culturally relevant care, language barriers, and gaps in health insurance coverage.

Important Factors to Consider When Preparing for College

Choosing a College

When choosing a college, it is important to consider issues such as cost, campus diversity, academic programs, student support programs, career guidance, and quality of teaching. Given that the AAPI community encompasses many ethnicities, choosing an institution that meets your cultural needs is important.

Applying to College

Applying to college is a process that requires planning ahead, and specific requirements might vary at every institution. In order to begin the process, consider your goals, possible locations of interest, whether the school has online program options, and how the cost of attendance affects your decision.

Paying for College

Paying for college is always a concern, but there are scholarships and grants available for AAPI students. Additionally, financial aid offices are helpful places to start when looking into available aid options. Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) on time is important to qualify for need-based aid.

College Resources for AAPI Students

National Student Networking — The East Coast Asian American Student Union joins student organizations across the country and provides opportunities for conferences, symposiums, and other events for AAPI students. This national networking platform allows students from various campuses to engage in shared experiences.

Counseling and Psychological Services — Mental health services provided by colleges and universities can be an important part of a student's support system. Counseling and mental health offices on college campuses offer a variety of services to support student's emotional and psychological needs. Remote counseling options may be available for online students.

Student Organizations — Student organizations allow like-minded individuals to create supportive communities together. Organizations can be divided into cultural subgroups or may serve the AAPI community more broadly. These organizations provide students with both academic and recreational events on college campuses.

"Resources that I tapped into as a first-generation college student included a lot of my peers. I was lucky and privileged enough to be surrounded by a lot of ambitious and talented young people, and a lot of times I had them to rely on. I found a lot of the gaps in my knowledge about applying to colleges would be filled just by asking, even the most minor questions."

— Winston Yan, political studies major and Asian American studies minor at University of California, Santa Barbara

Financial Aid Office — Schools have different options available to help meet their students' financial needs. Visit your financial aid office and talk to a financial aid counselor to find out what scholarships and grants you might be eligible for. Also check out national scholarships available through APIA Scholars.

Career Center — College career centers offer opportunities for students to reach their career goals, seek internships, and network with companies that are hiring in the community. Many professional organizations provide internships for AAPI students. Career counselors can help you navigate this process.

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National Advocacy Groups and Organizations for AAPI Students

Teach for America — This organization provides an opportunity for those interested in teaching and leadership to connect and serve within the AAPI community.

Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote — Provides AAPI individuals with training and advocacy opportunities to create change in their communities.

National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum — This is a movement that provides safety and support for AAPI women. The organization focuses on topics like reproductive health, civic engagement, policy, and legal advocacy.

Stop AAPI Hate — This is an organization created to address anti-Asian racism and hate. It provides data and research, policy and advocacy, and community building opportunities for AAPI individuals.

National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance — This group provides training and support for LGBTQ+ AAPI groups nationally. The purpose of this organization is to develop leaders and advocates from within the AAPI community and stop LGBTQ+ bias and racism.

Each Mind Matters — California's Mental Health Movement provides online resources specific to various populations, including AAPI conference opportunities, research, and youth stories describing cultural barriers to mental health.

18 Million Rising — An organization created to educate, organize and empower AAPI youth. This organization creates advocacy campaigns that respond to the political issues of the moment and mobilize young people to take action to support their communities.

The Coalition of Asian-American Leaders — This leadership program looks to develop skills and create networks for leadership support within the AAPI community. Based in Minnesota, it provides support to social justice leaders, community organizers, and advocates.

Asian American Psychological Association — This organization falls under the umbrella of the American Psychological Association and works to advance issues related to AAPI communities' mental health. The organization focuses on science research, practice, education, and policy.

Asian Enough — This New York Times podcast explores Asian identity. Hosts Jen Yamato, Johana Bhuiyan, Tracy Brown, and Suhauna Hussain explore elements of Asian culture across backgrounds and generations. Special guests share personal stories and insights. Available on Apple and Spotify.

Frequently Asked Questions About Asian American and Pacific Islander Students

What does AAPI stand for?

AAPI stands for Asian American and Pacific Islander, the fastest-growing minority group in the U.S. It encompasses about 50 separate subgroups with diverse languages, religions, and migration histories. For this reason, there are differing views on the accuracy of the term AAPI as a descriptor for this population.

The population includes individuals with backgrounds in Central and East Asia, Hawaii, the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and West Asia. As of 2012, the largest AAPI subgroup is Chinese Americans, who made up 22% of the U.S. AAPI population. The next largest groups are Filipino (19%) and Asian Indian (18%).

How many AAPI students attend college?

According to NCES, about 7.4% of all postsecondary students identified as AAPI in 2019. Among the 16.6 million undergraduate students that year, about 1.1 million (or 6.6%) were Asian and 45,000 were Pacific Islander, NCES reports.

What challenges do AAPI students face when attending college?

Since the onset of COVID-19 there has been an increase in reported anti-Asian hate crimes across the U.S. AAPI students have reported being discriminated against because of their race more frequently in recent years. The hate crimes and their visibility have increased the amount of pressure that this population experiences and the number of mental health challenges they face.

This population may be less likely to seek mental health support than other racial/ethnic groups. Additionally, AAPI subgroups experience varying levels of poverty, language barriers, and access to early childhood education. This creates gaps in preparation for students in their ability to access and pay for college.

What resources are most important for AAPI students in college?

Access to financial aid services, counseling and psychological services, and career services are all critical to AAPI student success in college. These services assist with access prior to enrollment, as well as provide support during and after the college experience.

Additionally, AAPI student organizations gives students access to like-minded peers and a social community that can provide support while in college.

What is an AAPI-serving institution?

An Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institution (AANAPISI) is defined as a college or university with an undergraduate population of at least 10% Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander students.

This designation was authorized by the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 and provides access to federal funds for eligible participating colleges. This funding allows colleges to provide student support services tailored to the AAPI community including financial aid, advising and academic support, first-year programs, and mentorship opportunities.

With Advice From:

Winston Yan

Winston Yan is a current third year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, pursuing a major in political science and a minor in Asian American studies. He currently enjoys cooking, reading, hiking, and hanging out with friends. Taking from his college experiences, he hopes to move forward into more political activism, working for a government agency or a nonprofit.