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More Than a Monolith: Asian Immigrant Students’ College Aspirations and Postsecondary Enrollment in the U.S.

Introduction by: Lisa Pamela Lopez-Escobar, Sophia Rodriguez, and Gisell Ramirez, University of Maryland, College Park

Guest Blogger: Rian R. Djita, PhD Student, University of Arkansas 

March 27, 2024

In this week’s blog, Rian R. Djita, a fourth year PhD student at the University of Arkansas, sheds light on the problematic and misleading misidentification of Asian immigrant populations. Djita explains that past literature has aggregated immigrant students into a monolith, ignoring the lived experiences of different ethnic groups. Djita’s larger study reveals differences in educational aspirations, expectations, and postsecondary outcomes among Asian subgroups. These findings showcase that Asian immigrant populations are not a monolith, but call for disaggregated racial and ethnic data that acknowledges these differences in order to develop effective intervention policies and culturally sensitive pedagogy. Djita’s research offers a critical lens on how immigrant groups are generalized and how their lived realities and specific needs are ignored. Future research should build on this work for different ethnic immigrant groups. 

We welcome additional comments and reflections, please email us at: or through the ImmigrantEdNext website. 

By Rian R. Djita


Recent studies have called for reforming the use of racial and ethnic data. A recent New York Times article also highlighted how problematic and misleading the misidentification of diverse immigrant populations in the U.S. can be. Asian immigrant populations are no exception. Past studies have shown that Asian students tend to outperform their non-Asian counterparts not only in academic achievement but also in postsecondary enrollment. However, one consistent issue remains: past studies tended to aggregate immigrant students into a homogeneous group, overlooking the varied realities of their diverse academic and postsecondary journey. This blog examines the nuanced postsecondary outcomes of Asian immigrant students across Asian subgroups nationally using the High School Longitudinal 2009 (HSLS:09), nationally representative data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). 

Asian Immigrants’ Diverse Immigration Journey to the U.S.

The migration process is complex and driven by many different factors. This process can vary not only across racial and ethnic groups but also within groups. Asian immigrants’ migration process is no exception. For instance, East Asians’ (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans) migration processes were marked by different periods of both economic opportunities (mining and agriculture work in the 1800s), followed by racist restrictions (i.e., the Chinese Act exclusions and the Gentlemen’s Agreement). In more recent years, the flow of skilled East Asian immigrants has significantly contributed to the overall success of this immigrant group. However, Indochinese populations (Vietnam, Lao, Cambodia) encountered different routes. Southeast Asian immigrants migrated to the U.S. through refugee settlement programs due to ongoing war and conflicts in their homeland. This involuntary displacement among Southeast Asian immigrants affects their long-term income and educational attainment

On the contrary, the narrative is different for South Asian immigrants, such as Indian Americans, who make up approximately 1% of the U.S. total population – making them the second largest foreign-born immigrants in the U.S. after Mexican Americans. The 1965 Immigration Act marked a turning point in Indian immigration to the U.S. Unlike the pre-1965 arrivals, who were mainly primarily low-skilled laborers, a massive wave of middle-class professionals and skilled immigrants from India began arriving in the U.S. for better economic opportunities. With over 4 million people of Indian descent in the U.S., Indian immigrants are highly regarded as one of the most successful and educated immigrants in the U.S., with a median household income twice that of White families and graduate degrees nearly four times that of Whites. These staggering differences among Asian immigrants emphasize the importance of contesting the idea of portraying Asians as a monolithic group.

Educational Aspirations, Expectations, and Postsecondary Outcomes

Past studies have documented that there is a clear relationship between parents’ academic aspirations, students’ academic expectations and their educational attainment. Unfortunately, studies on this topic mainly center White middle-class families, leaving a significant gap in understanding among immigrant families. The few studies that exist have not explored differences, especially among diverse immigrant groups such as Asian immigrants. My research seeks to bridge the gap using nationally representative HSLS data from NCES.

Data Set

Due to data restriction, I only used the first two out of six data collection points of HSLS data in my current study. This survey is a nationally representative longitudinal study of 9th graders conducted in 2009 and followed them throughout their secondary and postsecondary years. This survey was mainly administered to 9th graders but it also surveyed parents, school administrators, and school counselors. For this study, I only focused on parents' and students' responses. In the first data collection point, aside from demographic characteristics, parents were asked about their college aspirations for their adolescents: "If there were no barriers, how far in school would you want [your 9th grader] to go?" and the 9th graders were asked about their college expectations: "As things stand now, how far in school do you think you will get?"


The second data collection of the survey was administered four years after the first one, and it asked adolescents about their postsecondary outcomes. There were about 10% of the analytical sample (N = 23200) of the adolescents identified as Asian. Of these 10% Asian adolescents, 4% identified as East Asian descent, 4% as Southeast Asian, and 2% as South Asian. In addition, from parents' responses (N = 17000), there were about 10% of the parents identified as Asian parents, with 4% of them identified as East Asian descent, 3% as Southeast Asian, and the remaining 3% as South Asian.


I utilized logit and multinomial logit models by controlling for students' past achievement (GPA) and parents' and students' demographic characteristics. I included interaction terms between parental college aspirations and Asian subgroups to explore the heterogeneous differences across subgroups. In the first analysis, I focused on parents' responses to see different levels of education aspirations across Asian subgroups. In the subsequent analysis, I merged student and parents' responses to explore the relationship between parental aspirations and adolescents' college expectations across Asian subgroups. Lastly, in the third analysis, I focus on adolescents' responses and see how their college expectations are translated into their postsecondary enrollment. In the figures below, I show the comparisons of the likelihood of non-Asian parents compared to all other Asian subgroups on their college aspirations (Figure 1), the likelihood of parents' college aspirations, and adolescents' college expectations among non-Asian and Asian subgroups (Figure 2) and the last figures (Figure 3 and 4) represents the likelihood of college expectations and enrollment among Asian and non-Asian adolescents by types of postsecondary institutions.

Immigrant parents’ college aspirations, adolescents’ college expectations, and their postsecondary enrollment among Asian subgroups in the U.S.

The following findings are based on my larger study on a dissertation entitled “More Than a Monolith: Three Essays on the Diverse Journey of Immigrant Students and Their Postsecondary Outcomes.” I utilized logistical and multinomial logit models for this piece; all the estimates here are presented in percentage points (pp). Since the results are not causal, readers should take caution in interpreting the results.

  1. Do Asian parents have higher college aspirations compared to non-Asian parents?

Yes. Controlling for parents and students’ demographic backgrounds, compared to non-Asian parents, all three sub-Asian groups showed a higher likelihood of having higher college expectations. However, it is also important to note that the likelihoods across Asian subgroups are significantly different, with South Asian parents having the highest likelihood among all the Asian subgroups. Precisely, all else equal, I found that South Asian parents have the highest likelihood of having college aspirations for their adolescents among all of the comparisons. For instance, compared to non-Asian parents, South Asian parents are associated with about 11 pp higher likelihood of having college aspirations for their children (84% vs 73%), 5 pp higher likelihood compared to East Asian parents (84% vs 79%), and 10 pp higher likelihood compared to Southeast Asian parents (84% vs 74%).

2. Are Asian parents with college aspirations more likely to have 9th graders who have college expectations? How do parents’ college expectations differ across Asian subgroups?

Yes. On average, Asian adolescents are more likely to have college expectations if their parents have college aspirations, and the likelihood also varies across Asian subgroups. The trend remains the same, with South Asian parents showing the highest likelihood of having adolescents who have college expectations among all comparisons: 32 pp higher when compared to non-Asian parents (92% vs 60%), 14 pp higher compared to East Asian parents (92% vs 78%) and 19 pp higher compared to Southeast Asian parents (92% vs 73%). 

3. Are 9th graders more likely to attend college if their parents have college aspirations? Do 9th graders’ college-going trend differ across Asian subgroups?

It depends on the type of postsecondary institution. For instance, on average, Asian parents with college aspirations tend to have a much lower likelihood of having their children enroll in a 2-year postsecondary program than non-Asian parents (see Figure 3).

However, the trend is the opposite for 4-year postsecondary enrollment. Among parents with college aspirations, all three groups of Asian parents tend to have a higher likelihood of their non-Asian parents of their children enrolling in a 4-year postsecondary institution by 20 pp for South Asian parents, 13 pp, and 5 pp for East and Southeast Asian parents, respectively (see Figure 4).

Implications and Future Directions

These results demonstrate a critical need to disaggregate racial and ethnic data, particularly among diverse racial and ethnic groups, including Asian immigrants. This is important because there are a lot of nuances among Asian immigrants, especially in Asian parents’ college aspirations for their children; Asian adolescents’ college expectations, and their college access, and lumping together Asian Americans can hide these disparities within the group. Failing to identify this within-group postsecondary aspirations, expectations, and access disparities might lead to many negative consequences in educational access, including ineffective policies that miss the mark to serve at-risk populations or misallocating resources that may perpetuate the gaps across groups. Recent studies have argued that it is not only fundamental civil rights, but it also helps policymakers to make more targeted policy and interventions for these diverse populations. Disclosing the limitation of aggregated data in future studies, adding social identity markers such as home language, heritage, or country of origin, or providing individuals to choose more than one option of racial and ethnic identities are some strategies that future studies should include.  

In addition, in a more targeted policy approach, educators and policymakers should move beyond the stereotypical “model minority” or the monolithic myth of Asian immigrants and start embracing the diverse cultures and backgrounds among Asian immigrants.  

My research adds to this valuable body of knowledge by providing a more granular analysis of these disparities within the Asian immigrant population related to parental aspirations, adolescents’ college expectations and how they are translated into adolescents postsecondary enrollment. Specifically, while studies in the past have explored overall college aspirations among Asian immigrants, my study delves deeper into how parental aspirations relate to adolescents’ college expectations and how they are translated into their postsecondary enrollment across Asian subgroups, enabling us to make comparisons across Asian subgroups. These observed subgroup differences among Asians not only highlight the importance of a nuanced understanding of immigrants but also call for educational strategies that are tailored to the different needs of immigrant students, including culturally sensitive training and some family-school programs. Studies have shown that these strategies may pave the way for a more supportive and inclusive education for this diverse population of Asian immigrants.

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Suggested Citation*: Djita, R. R. (2024, March). More than a monolith: The nuances of Asian immigrants students’ college aspirations and expectations and their postsecondary enrollment in the U.S. Immigrant Ed Next. 

*Introduction by Gisell Ramirez, Lisa Lopez-Escobar and Sophia Rodriguez

Copyright 2022: Sophia Rodriguez, Immigrant Ed Next-All Rights Reserved  

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