Public discussion of educational equity frequently frames student achievement in terms of outcome gaps between different racial or ethnic groups. In this framing, Asian students are nearly always included together with white students in a high-achieving group set apart and compared to other students of color—predominantly Black and Latinx students. However natural this may have become in education discourse, it can fundamentally obscure important disparities within these diverse student groups.

In particular, the educational outcomes of Southeast Asian students—particularly those descended from refugees of the past thirty years as the result of U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War—are significantly different than those of their East Asian peers. These students largely vanish in current data systems—they deserve better data policies that will tell an accurate story of Southeast Asian students’ educational challenges, opportunities, and achievement. Critically, improved data would allow schools to better identify these students’ needs and better address the systemic hurdles they face in U.S. public education.

As part of this discussion, it’s important to recognize that diversity within the Asian student group in the United States includes—and reflects—key historical events. Some Asian populations in the United States (predominantly East Asians) established themselves here decades—even centuries—ago. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, a wave of Chinese migrants moved to the mountains of California in search of gold. Chinese nationals continued to migrate steadily into the United States, though not without pushback, as seen in the passing of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The subsequent ban on Chinese migrants increased Japanese immigration to replace Chinese labor, and by the end of World War I, 180,000 Asian Americans lived in the United States: 100,000 Japanese people and 60,000 Chinese people, among others.

It wasn’t until decades later that large numbers of Asian people again migrated to the United States. Large swathes of immigrants from Southeast Asia migrated into the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century, in response to traumatic and catastrophic events that occurred in Southeast Asia, including the political violence during the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the widespread casualties and damage during the Vietnam War.

The timing and circumstances of Southeast Asians’ migration to the United States has greatly influenced their access to opportunity in U.S. schools and society. In particular, has resulted in different socioeconomic trajectories than Asian-Americans with roots in the earlier East Asian immigration waves. When Southeast Asian refugees (often fleeing the consequences of U.S. military violence) more recently settled into the country, their relative lack of capital and social support disadvantaged their communities and students relative to many native-born Americans, as well as relative to the more established East Asian communities that had planted roots during earlier immigration waves.

These historical differences have concrete consequences for families and their children, though they are often obscured in public data categories. For instance, in 2019, whereas the Asian families had a median household income of $85,800, median income for Vietnamese families was $70,000, for Hmong families $68,000, and for Laotian families $61,000. Furthermore, 18.2 percent of Cambodian Americans, 12.2 percent of Laotian Americans, 27.4 percent of Hmong Americans, and 13 percent of Vietnamese Americans live below the poverty level. The significant difference in cultural familiarity with the United States and (lack of) accrued capital in Southeast Asian communities continues to disadvantage them and manifests in a multitude of ways, including in education. The disparate starting points between diverse groups of Asian immigrants within the United States have lasting repercussions for Southeast Asian populations today, who remain disadvantaged in tangible ways. The trouble is that their stories are not always tangible to policymakers or the public, because they are hidden by how educational attainment statistics are gathered and published.

For example, at the college level, equitable educational practices such as affirmative action or race-conscious admissions aiming to cultivate diverse campuses regularly treat Asian students as a uniform student group. In grouping them together in a single racial category, these policies fail to contextualize the disparate experiences of Asian students with dramatically different backgrounds. Within many collegiate and higher education spaces, Asian students are considered to be overrepresented relative to the general population—a point of dispute in a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. However, when disaggregated, it becomes evident that Southeast Asian students are relatively underrepresented on campus.

In deeming Asian students as overrepresented among applicants, many colleges are turning affirmative action on its head to deprioritize Asian students in admissions. When looking more closely under the Asian label, it becomes clear how this deprioritization is especially damaging for Southeast Asian students. Compared with the overall college enrollment rate of 67 percent among Asian students ages 18–24 in 2019, 73 percent among East Asian students, and 68 percent among South Asian students, the enrollment rate for Southeast Asian students was only 57 percent—with Burmese high school graduates attending college only at a rate of 23 percent and Hmong students at a rate of 39 percent. Because colleges generally group these diverse students under the overarching label of “Asian,” however, these groups could all be equally deprioritized in admissions. This would be an injustice, since Southeast Asians are relatively underrepresented when compared to other students that benefit from affirmative action on college campuses.

Being labeled as overrepresented when applying to college is particularly discouraging, considering the challenges Southeast Asian students face earlier in their education. In high school, where Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students broadly present as successful—with the highest “adjusted cohort graduation rate” (high school graduation rate) among all categories, at 93 percent. And yet, Southeast Asian students show very different patterns: 34.3 percent of Laotians, 38.5 percent of Cambodians, and 39.6 percent of Hmong adults in the United States do not have a high school diploma. Southeast Asian students experience strikingly low high school graduation rates relative to any student group, a fact that has largely been masked due to the overarching label of “Asian,” which is often tilted by the economic and academic successes of large populations of students with East Asian roots. When data groupings place Southeast Asian and East Asian students together, they mask the systemic challenges that Southeast Asian students actually face relative to their peers—of almost any other background—and render inequities invisible.

While it is important to celebrate the success of Asian Americans as a whole, not looking beyond this general label can lead well-meaning education policies to harm vulnerable Southeast Asian populations. Lack of knowledge about the challenges that Southeast Asian students face leads to ignorance and a lack of policy adaptability to identify and support the needs of Southeast Asian students. This lack of support results in reduced opportunities and a perpetuation of the systemic inequities these children too often face. Policymakers can do better. Specifically, policymakers should:

  1. Disaggregate the label “Asian” to better describe the populations that fall under this category. By further distinguishing the groups of students that fall under the label “Asian” and subsequent subcategories, policymakers and educators can more easily access necessary information to support Southeast Asian students relative to the larger category of Asian students. As it stands, when analyzing data for Southeast Asian students specifically, their high school graduation rate, college matriculation rates, and median household incomes already demonstrate a substantial gap between their numbers and those of many other student groups, including their East Asian peers. Rather than masking these existing gaps, data should be restructured to highlight these inequalities to allow for educational leaders and stakeholders to address them equitably.
  2. Reassess and expand affirmative action measures to recognize and celebrate the value of Southeast Asian students’ unique experiences. Colleges and universities must reevaluate how they utilize affirmative action in their admissions practices to best support, uplift, and include student experiences that are often excluded from their campuses. Without parsing out the experiences of Southeast Asian students and analyzing them separately from those of East Asian students, the present system and affirmative action disadvantages Southeast Asian students by failing to recognize the specific details that diminish Southeast Asian students’ educational prospects today. Southeast Asian students deserve to be considered in their rightful context, alongside their distinct hardships—and should be given adequate consideration of ways that their presence could contribute, in the words of University of Maryland Professor Julie J. Park, “to a more robust learning environment and may support the retention of [other] lower-income students of color by creating a more fluid campus environment,” following in line with the mission of affirmative action.