A little-known federal program has helped to empower generations of underserved Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander students. This week, the Biden-Harris Administration is taking new steps to strengthen it.

By Erika L. Moritsugu, Krystal Ka‘ai, and Philip Kim

Last Friday, President Joe Biden issued the first-ever White House proclamation celebrating the impact of the Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISI) program and formally proclaimed September 25 through October 1, 2023, as National AANAPISI Week. The move is not only historic – it is the latest in a series of unprecedented steps taken by the Biden-Harris Administration to uplift the vital role of Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), providing a critical pathway to higher education for millions of Americans and to secure safety and stability in the middle class.

Ever since Congress first established the AANAPISI program in 2007, these campuses have empowered generations of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AA and NHPI) students. Both federal data and independent research show the influence of the AANAPISI program in broadening opportunity and putting higher education within reach for underserved AA and NHPI communities, many of whom are low income and the first in their families to attend college. 

The facts are clear. Though AANAPISIs make up a small percentage of U.S. colleges and universities, they enroll nearly half of the nation’s AA and NHPI undergraduate students. AANAPISIs also confer almost 50 percent of the associate degrees and nearly 30 percent of the baccalaureate degrees attained by all AA and NHPIs in the United States. Their efforts have also yielded progress in other ways – including improved retention and degree attainment rates for underserved communities. 

In addition, AANAPISIs employ and cultivate many of America’s top AA and NHPI leaders in higher education, including college and university presidents, administrators, and faculty. And as efforts to promote the teaching of AA and NHPI history continues to grow, these institutions have been at the forefront of groundbreaking scholarship and research, developing tools and sustaining initiatives to better tell our communities’ stories.

Despite these benefits, the AANAPISI designation is little known in comparison to other MSIs like Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), and numerous institutions of higher education are unaware of their eligibility. 281 colleges and universities qualified as AANAPISIs in 2022, but only a fraction have sought and received funding through the program. 

The gap in awareness can be partially explained by the “model minority” myth, a harmful stereotype coined in the 1960s that ubiquitously casts our diverse AA and NHPI communities as affluent, high-achieving, and immune from the socioeconomic challenges faced by other communities of color. In practice, the myth has fueled monolithic characterizations of AA and NHPIs in post-secondary education that mask major disparities in student outcomes and experiences, a feat in inaccuracy when you realize AA and NHPI communities encompass more than 50 distinct ethnicities that speak over 100 different dialects and languages.

Yet the model minority myth is not the sole reason of concern. Experts point to limited program funding, the lack of disaggregated data on AA and NHPI students, and other barriers such as hate, discrimination, and sometimes violence – and say the federal government has a larger responsibility to uplift AANAPISIs.

We agree. During National AANAPISI Week, we have the chance to elevate the work of these critical institutions and recommit ourselves to strengthening their capacity – so that more Americans can reach their full potential.

Each AANAPISI plays a role in how the next generation of AA and NHPI students excel. They create culturally responsive environments in places of higher learning and offer invaluable support through mental health, language access, and career development services. During the COVID-19 pandemic, AANAPISIs helped to foster environments of inclusion and belonging to combat increased xenophobia and hatred directed toward the Asian American community. They created meaningful spaces to prepare AA and NHPI college students to be civically engaged leaders and changemakers.

That is why the Biden-Harris Administration is actively investing in Minority-Serving Institutions, including AANAPISIs, and will continue its efforts to support all students through graduation and beyond. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan delivered $5 billion in funding to AANAPISIs, and the U.S. Department of Education provided them with millions of dollars to expand research infrastructure. Across the federal government, agencies including the Departments of Education, Defense, and Energy, are working to improve the capacity and infrastructure of AANAPISIs through grants, cooperative agreements, and direct financial relief to students. And as President Biden announced at his meeting with Pacific Islands Forum leaders at the White House on Monday, the United States will double the number of academic exchanges of Pacific Islander students beginning this year.

Furthermore, the Biden-Harris Administration has repeatedly sought substantial funding increases from Congress for MSIs. Along with securing the largest increase for Pell Grants in over a decade for low-income families and bold actions to provide relief to student borrowers, President Biden is fighting to ensure that places of higher learning have the federal support they need to thrive. 

Finally, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (WHIAANHPI) is committed to tackling barriers to educational attainment in all forms. With the release of the Administration’s first-ever national strategy to advance equity, justice, and opportunity for AA and NHPI communities, we are working to create a higher education system that is more inclusive, equitable, and affordable. And we are urging the expansion of data disaggregation practices that help policymakers, administrators, and faculty gain deeper insight into the unique and varied educational needs of our diverse AA and NHPI communities.

Imagine the possibilities that we could unlock by investing in our educators and students. And with the AA and NHPI population rapidly increasing, the urgency to strengthen and support AANAPSIs will only grow in the years to come.

Our nation is stronger when we tap into the full range of talent of our students, who have demonstrated remarkable resilience and determination in the face of historic challenges. While AANAPISI Week is a time to celebrate and reflect upon the tremendous impact of this critical program, we recognize that more needs to be done to support our children and the schools that foster environments where students can lead and learn.

As President Biden wrote, “may we recommit to supporting these institutions as they raise the next generation of AA and NHPI dreamers and doers.”

Erika L. Moritsugu is Deputy Assistant to the President and Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Senior Liaison at the White House.

Krystal Ka‘ai is Executive Director of the White House Initiative and President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.

Philip Kim is a Senior Advisor at the White House Office of Public Engagement.

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