Tuesday, February 09, 2010

When the Good Guys have Bad Infromation: Academic Programs for Underrepresented Minorities that Exclude an Underrepresented Minority

I understand that it might be possible that someone could hear about the PIA project's work to end the exclusion of Pacific Islanders from academic programs for underrepresented minorities, and end up thinking that we see these programs as an enemy. After all, these programs describe themselves as being dedicated to helping underrepresented minorities, but most of them excluded Pacific Islanders - who are underrepresented. Noting that possibility, it is important for the PIA project to be clear: academic programs for underrepresented minorities are not an enemy.

Academic Programs for Underrepresented Minorities: the Good Guys
Academic programs for underrepresented minorities serve a purpose that is important and noble: helping parts of the American community who have largely been left behind recent gains in higher education. This makes them especially valuable to the minority groups who have been less successful in education. As underrepresented minority groups - who already make up about 1/4th of the U.S. population - become a bigger part of America, closing the education gap becomes less of a minority issue and more of a national issue.

Studies show that on average, a college diploma is correlated with major benefits for the individual degree earner, her or his family, and the greater community. Community benefits include:
  • Higher earnings, which contribute to the economy and provide greater tax revenue
  • Lower likelihood to rely on public assistance such as welfare
  • Reduced chances of committing crimes, which is a safety issue and a burden on the tax payers (because of the hefty cost of incarceration)

This doesn't even touch on the individual benefits related to education, or the snowball-effect that educated parents have on improving the chances that their children will succeed in school. Closing the education gap for underrepresented minorities would lead to a stronger, safer, and more prosperous America. More than a minority-issue, this is a matter of national interest.

But who is working to make it happen? The men and women who work at and support scholarships, fellowships, and other academic programs for underrepresented minorities.

I can't show you a survey as evidence, but I am confident that most of these people do what they do because of a sincere desire to help underrepresented minorities who are trying to help themselves. And for the African American, Hispanic, and American Indian and Alaska Native students who benefit, they do make a difference.

Our Goal: Help these Academic Programs Do More

My belief is that the issue comes down to good intentions and bad information. Almost certainly without realizing it, many academic programs for underrepresented minorities have excluded Pacific Islanders. Polynesian, Micronesian, and Melanesian students look for these programs and see that when a scholarship says it is for underrepresented students, the fine print usually reads "African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indian and Alaska Natives only." Possibly because of the reasons I outlined our previous post, underrepresented minority programs are excluding an underrepresented group.

The PIA project is motivated by the belief that when these academic programs are presented with the facts, they will want to change their policies. This year we will test that theory. But first, we need to lay out the evidence, share out story with other Pacific Islander groups, and reach out to prospective allies.


Monday, February 08, 2010

Why? Three Theories on why Pacific Islanders are Excluded from Academic Programs for Underrepresented Minorities

Each of the previous blogs have described the problem the PIA project is focused on - the exclusion of Pacific Islanders from academic programs for underrepresented minorities, and how this makes it harder for Pacific Islanders to end their own underrepresentation - so the problem is clear. However, it is fair to ask why this is occurring at all. Why are Pacific Islander excluded from academic programs for underrepresented minorities when they are an underrepresented minority?

Three Theories: Why Pacific Islanders are Excluded

1.) Population

Because we are a smaller population: The fact that the Pacific Islander American population is much smaller than included underrepresented minority groups could be a big factor in their exclusion. Also, while Pacific Islanders live in every State of the Union, over half of the population live in just two states: California and Hawaii. The fact that their smaller population is highly concentrated could mean that for many decision makers, Pacific Islanders are out of sight and out of mind.

2.) The Myth of "Asian Pacifics"

Because we're lumped in with Asians, who aren't underrepresented: Another possible cause is the outdated practice of lumping Pacific Islanders with Asians to form the "Asian Pacific", "Asian Pacific Islander" or "Asian and Pacific Islander" category. Because Asians and Pacific Islanders are different in many respects - especially when it comes to higher education issues - lumping the two groups together does a disservice to anyone honestly trying to understand these two distinct racial groups. Moreover, because Asians greatly outnumber Pacific Islander Americans (approximately 15 to 1), any stats on "Asian Pacifics" largely reflects Asians, not Pacific Islanders. (I'll go into detail on this in a future post.)

3.) Pacific Islander Americans: A Silent Minority

Because we haven't come together on this issue: The size and concentration of the Pacific Islander American community, along with the way Pacific Islander issues are hidden behind the "Asian Pacific" lumping, are certainly both factors in their exclusion from academic programs. After all, if these programs:
  • Don't know Pacific Islanders exist, or

  • They don't know that unlike Asians, Pacific Islanders are underrepresented...

...then of course these programs wouldn't include Pacific Islanders with African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indian and Alaska Natives. But the fact is that we do exist, and we are underrepresented, so that begs the question: why haven't we spoken up? Why is it that while a few Pacific Islanders have spoken out on this issue, there hasn't been a community-wide movement?

I welcome your answers to this question. I have my own ideas, but to be honest, instead of getting stuck on why it hasn't happened yet, I'd like us to turn our focus to making it happen. But in order to do that, we need to communicate with each other, with our friends, and with the people who set the policies at academic programs for underrepresented minorities.

Our next post will focus on our future allies: the underrepresented minority academic programs that currently exclude Pacific Islanders.