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Affirmative action debate ignores Asian American community college students

As California votes on affirmative action, nearly half the state's AAPI students who start off at community colleges would benefit, advocates say.
Demonstrators protested in San Francisco in 2012 as federal judges heard arguments in a lawsuit seeking to overturn Proposition 209, which barred racial, ethnic or gender preferences in public education, employment and contracting.
Demonstrators protested in San Francisco in 2012 as federal judges heard arguments in a lawsuit seeking to overturn Proposition 209, which barred racial, ethnic or gender preferences in public education, employment and contracting.Paul Sakuma / AP file

The November election has yet again thrust the Asian American community into the middle of a contentious affirmative action fight. This time, it's in California, with Proposition 16, a statewide ballot measure that would restore race-conscious decision-making in public education admissions, employment and contracting — practices that were banned in 1996.

The initiative has won the backing of more than 100 prominent Asian organizations, including the California API Legislative Caucus and Asian Americans Advancing Justice. But it's also facing stiff resistance from some parents who fear it would diminish their children's chances of getting into top-tier University of California schools, such as Berkeley and UCLA, even though the system accepts more Asian applicants than those from any other racial group.

The attention on elite schools — as with the battle over admissions policies at Harvard University and New York City's specialized high schools — obscures the fact that most Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders don't attend such institutions. Nearly half of California's AAPI students — more than a quarter-million people — begin their freshman years at one of the state's 115 community colleges. (Asians account for about 11 percent of community college enrollment, which is comparable to their share of the state's population. By contrast, they're vastly overrepresented in the University of California system.)

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Restoring affirmative action would give a boost to many of those students, whose educational needs are often overlooked in favor of those of students at elite schools, experts and community leaders say.

"When we look at elite institutions as the hill we want to die on in terms of affirmative action, we're missing the fact that, in reality, most of our children gain entry to higher education through other pathways," said Victoria Dominguez, the education equity director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles.

The 2 million students in California's community college system vary widely by age and socioeconomic status. Based on their shares of the population, Filipino and Vietnamese admits are overrepresented, while Indian and East Asian students are slightly underrepresented, according to a 2015 report from the Campaign for College Opportunity.

Because they cost less and accept any student with a high school diploma, community colleges also serve many poor, first-generation students — including Southeast Asian refugees and Pacific Islanders — who face significant hurdles to finishing their educations.

In the Central Valley, for example, Fresno City College covers an area with the second-largest Hmong community in the country, where only about 1 in 10 people have bachelor's degrees or higher. In Southern California, Long Beach City College serves sizable Pacific Islander and Cambodian populations, two ethnic groups with high poverty and low educational attainment rates.

"At the end of the day, UCs are only going to admit so many freshmen," said Eloy Oakley, chancellor of California Community Colleges. "While they're important, there's only so much to change." Should Proposition 16 pass, he said, "the real change is going to happen in community colleges."

After obtaining associate degrees after two years, students have a guaranteed transfer path to a University of California or California State University institution, along with a number of private colleges. Proposition 16, Oakley said, would help the most marginalized admits graduate on time, transfer to four-year institutions and successfully enter the workforce.

Affirmative action policies can benefit Asian students by addressing inequalities within their own communities, said Janelle Wong, a senior researcher at AAPI Data, a publisher of demographic and policy research about Asian Americans. Such race-informed initiatives could include targeted outreach to low-income youths, robust language support for limited English speakers and culturally responsive resources for refugees and immigrants, especially as the White House has expanded detentions and deportations.

Disaggregating data about AAPIs by ethnicity, she said, can better inform educators and politicians about the different challenges each group faces.

"Schools would be able to tackle race-specific issues by hiring more faculty and staff who understand the nuances and uniqueness of Asian American students to ensure they are successful," Wong said. (More than 60 percent of tenured faculty members in community colleges are white; less than 30 percent of students are.)

After California adopted Proposition 209 in 1996, making it the first state to ban affirmative action in public institutions, many colleges were forced to dilute or cancel race-conscious programs that addressed institutional barriers facing ethnic minorities, according to a new study from The Education Trust-West, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Rather than zero in on specific ethnic groups living in under-resourced cities, such as Fresno's Hmong diaspora or Long Beach's Cambodian one, schools have had to distribute financial and academic capital using other demographic data, such as income level.

But that hasn't always served students of color, advocates say.

"We have now almost 25 years of evidence from Prop 209 that class is not a proxy for race," said Chris Nellum, deputy director of research and policy at The Education Trust-West. "At the same income levels, we still see a racial equity gap between Black and white students. We still see disproportionate admission rates for Black, Latino, Southeast Asian, Native American folks. We still see disproportionate enrollment rates and six-year completion rates."

Despite a formidable fundraising haul and sterling endorsements from elected officials and professional sports teams, public support for Proposition 16 remains weak with the election just four weeks away. Among Asian Americans, the picture is complicated. While 70 percent of AAPIs support affirmative action, just one-third back the ballot measure, according to a recent survey from AAPI Data.

Wong, the group's senior researcher, said ineffective messaging is one reason the initiative hasn't resonated with a wide coalition of Californians.

"What you see in polls that show some degree of resistance is that the title and wording for Prop 16 causes so much confusion," she said, noting that voters aren't told how affirmative action can help marginalized students overcome financial hardships to finish school and make the transition to the job market.

But there's still time for that to change. "We've noticed that when people do understand what Prop 16 stands for, they support it," she said.

One way to quickly educate AAPI voters about the measure's goals and impact is to focus on the community college system, Wong said, adding: "It shows that not every Asian American is focused on highly selective colleges and that affirmative action policies would help Asians as well as Black and Latino students."