Let’s Not Have More Disaggregated Data

Quite a few
people have built careers in higher education around the supposed need to study
how different groups compare, and when the inevitable disparities are
discovered, setting up programs to address the “underrepresentation problem.”
To get a sense of just how deeply ingrained such thinking is, consider this
piece from Inside Higher Ed, “The
Deceptive Data on Asians.”

In it, we
learn that a recent study by ETS and a group called the National Commission on
Asian-American and Pacific Islander Research in Education has demanded that
colleges and universities collect and report disaggregated data about
Asian-American students “as much as possible.”

We need
such data because Asians have been cast as “the model minority” and therefore
beyond the purview of all our “affirmative action” policies. Once you
disaggregate the data, however, you can find all kinds of imbalances and
inequities that cry out for attention.

If you look
at the charts in the story, you see that there are huge differences in
educational attainment between students with different Asian ancestries. For
example, those with Hmong ancestry have much lower educational levels (only
14.7 percent having earned a B.A. or higher) than do those of Taiwanese descent
(74.1 percent). Now we can see that there are serious problems that have been,
in the words of Professor Robert Teranishi of New York University, “overlooked
and misunderstood.”

Obviously,
we need more “outreach” to the groups that are “underrepresented.”

For the
sake of argument, let’s take this idea seriously. The disaggregation proposed
doesn’t go nearly far enough. Colleges and supposed to report, e.g., “Sri
Lankan” as a category, but Sri Lanka is a badly divided country with
considerable inequality among its five main ethnic groups:
the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, and Veddah. It’s likely that there
are imbalances lurking in the data for Sinhalese Sri Lankan-American students
and Tamil Sri Lankan-American students. Don’t we need to find out?

And don’t
forget the possibility of sub-dividing those groups to find still more inequalities.

After
reading that report, college administrators are no doubt envisioning the
prospect of creating new programs and offices to run them. UC-Berkeley’s Division of Equity and
Inclusion
might, for example, expand to address the needs of students of
Laotian, Bangladeshi, and Filipino heritage, and maybe even the more
“disadvantaged” groups of Taiwanese once they’ve been identified. The
disaggregated data could be the investment capital for a new growth industry.

Instead, I
suggest that we welcome the study as an occasion to reflect on the folly of
grouping people according to race, ethnicity, social class, religion, or
anything else, and then assuming that any group differences indicate problems
we must solve. Relatively few Americans of Hmong ancestry have earned college
degrees, but there are no official barriers to prevent more from doing so. The
existence of the array of educational opportunities in California and other
states is known to those people and if most don’t think that more education is
best for them, that’s fine. If and when more of them want to attend college,
they’ll do so.

Statistics
are often used as the excuse for government meddling. That’s true for
unemployment, trade, housing, and emphatically so with regard to education.
Putting students into smaller and smaller pigeon holes on the basis of their
background is unnecessary and divisive. Time to stop doing so.

George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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