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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Hidden Configurations of Inequality: A Multilevel Analysis of Ethnic Stratification across the Postsecondary Pipeline

  • Author(s): Nguyen, Bach Mai Dolly
  • Advisor(s): Teranishi, Robert T
  • et al.

Consider college success as a 1000-piece pyramid shaped puzzle, with each student representing one unique piece that fits precisely into a racial hierarchy. This puzzle represents the normative racial paradigm through which the stratification of educational success is viewed, studied, and understood. But, what if one of those pieces does not fit? What becomes of outliers to that dominant hierarchy? Asian Americans illustrate the need for reconsidering this hierarchy, as they do not hold a static position within it. As such, my dissertation aims to answer the broader question: How does complicating the Asian American race category, through the examination of ethnicity, change the outcomes of educational “success” for Asian Americans? To answer this question, I utilize a multilevel mixed-effects approach to examine the factors that influence educational success – measured as enrollment, persistence and attainment – using longitudinal data, disaggregated by Asian American ethnic subgroup.

Guided by racial formation theory, the study finds that the despite the success normally associated with Asian American students, those who are economically disadvantaged face a pronounced disadvantage in enrollment and transfer – one that is more distinctly negative than any other racial group. The study also reveals that counter to former research, as high school GPA increases, Vietnamese students become less likely to enroll in a four-year university than comparable Chinese peers. Together, the study necessitates the questioning of assumptions related to how success and race are linked. Additionally, it undergirds the broader point that being Asian American, despite perceived or actualized success, does not equate freedom from structural discrimination.

Thus, whether Asian Americans feel represented by the dominant racial hierarchy or not, there is an immediate need to challenge misconceptions about how the invisibility of some may be part and parcel of the discrimination faced by all. Only when a puzzle has all its pieces in place can a true rendering of the stratification of success be revealed. Through the collective effort of Asian Americans as a unified group to unveil the hidden configurations of inequality by ensuring that each piece of the college success puzzle is acknowledged and integrated, educational equity can be advanced.

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