Filipino Americans and Educational Downward Mobility



This paper challenges the simplistic narrative of Asian Americans as a singular high-achieving racial group in terms of college attainment. It focuses on Filipino Americans, a subgroup that literature suggests experiences a pattern of downward inter-generational mobility, due in part to racialized segmented assimilation. Analysis of micro-level data from the Bureau of the Census supports the hypothesis that U.S.-born Filipinos are less likely to have a bachelor’s degree than Filipino immigrants and other U.S-born Asians, even after controlling for age, sex, region of birth, and race/ethnicity of parents. The study’s findings point to the necessity to move beyond stereotypes and to instead examine the complex relationship between ethnicity and race.

Part I: Introduction

In June 2012, Pew Research Center released a report entitled “The Rise of Asian Americans” that heralded a positive socioeconomic portrait of Asians in the United States. Based on an analysis of the 2010 American Community Survey (ACS), the well-respected research organization proclaimed Asians as the best-educated racial group in the nation (Taylor et al. 2012). The data shows that Asian Americans as a group leads all Americans in holding bachelor’s degrees or higher by more than 20 percentage points. These base numbers and Pew’s glowing report arguably reflect and confirm several common perceptions of Asian Americans: that they are a smart and hardworking racial group, they play by society’s rules, and they push their children to succeed.1 The report implies that these seemingly inherent qualities enable Asian Americans to reach the markers of educational achievement that all Americans aspire to—and that since they are clearly getting ahead, there is little need to worry about their socioeconomic prospects.2
One major problem with the above assertion is that it buries competing explanations of educational attainment deep in the text, privileging one based on culture and individual drive over structural explanations. As noted in earlier scholarly writings, much of the socioeconomic achievement of Asian Americans is anchored in highly selective migration after the 1965 Immigration Act eliminated racially biased restrictions. The pattern involves creaming the best educated and most ambitious from the sending country through explicit and implicit U.S. policy and law (Ong et al. 1984; Hing 1993; Hing and Lee 1996). This occupational-based immigration has enabled foreign graduate students in American universities to stay permanently as needed high-skilled labor and opened the door for those with advanced degrees from the best Asian colleges and universities. In turn, these immigrants become family sponsors, creating a modern chain of migration that favors the upper classes and educational elite (Liu et al. 1991). Although many highly educated immigrants have encountered problems translating their training into comparable jobs, they nonetheless are not forced to start at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Given some immigrants’ “head start,” the issue of educational attainment should be evaluated not just by comparing Asian Americans to other racial/ethnic groups. An equally important question is whether there is intergenerational upward mobility, or if subsequent U.S.-born generations rise from their parents’ socioeconomic status (SES). The statistics do not give a resounding positive answer. Among those 25 years and older, 49.4 percent of U.S.-born had at least a bachelor’s degree, only marginally higher than the 48.9 percent for foreign-born (Taylor et al. 2012, 10). This apparent lack of dramatic progress raises doubt about improving beyond the base built by selective immigration.
An equally important problem with the assertion is that it offers only a static view of achievement relative to the total population or the non-Hispanic White population. It fails to adequately analyze intergenerational changes, including the possibility of downward educational mobility from one generation to the next. Several studies have documented that educational attainment for Asian Americans stalls or declines by the third generation (Yang 2004; Takei and Sakamoto 2009), along with a shift away from the technical and scientific fields (Sakamoto et al. 2009). Moreover, educational mobility varies across Asian ethnic groups due to segmented assimilation, the idea that different immigrant groups may assimilate into different classes in their new society based on the structural resources and barriers presented to them (Zhou 1997). The Asian American contingent is made up of well over 20 different ethnic and national-origin groups, each of which comes from a specific immigration, historical, and cultural context (Zhou 2004). The act of lumping these many groups together to form one “race” may have certain political benefits, but it has the pitfall of obscuring important intragroup differences that can pose unique and frustrating barriers to some subpopulations. A closer look at these differences is needed in order to recognize the wealth of diversity that exists within a racial group often singularly dubbed as America’s “model minority.”3
Given Asian Americans’ ethnic diversity, it would not be surprising to see systematic differences in intergenerational trajectories. Upward mobility is a given for ethnic groups with a high percentage of immigrants who have little or no formal education, such as some Southeast Asian refugee groups. The intergenerational increase is partly the product of compulsory education in the United States. Moreover, some of these immigrants were minorities in their home counties, encountering restrictions to higher education and suffering a “glass ceiling” on college attainment. Another possible phenomenon that is equally interesting is intergenerational downward mobility for ethnic groups with highly educated immigrants. This could be particularly true if the U.S.-born children encounter racial or ethnic discrimination, thus creating hurdles to completing college.

Part II: Filipino Exceptionalism

We examine the possibility of intergenerational downward mobility by focusing on Filipino Americans, a group that the literature has identified as being at risk. This population, the second largest Asian ethnic group in the United States, 4 differs from other Asian Americans for a number of reasons. The Philippines is the only Asian country that is a former U.S. colony. As a result of nearly 500 years of Western colonization in the Philippines, Filipinos to this day embody many Spanish cultural influences and are taught English and U.S. history in schools. The presence of U.S. military and educational systems over the past century has influenced Filipinos’ professional patterns and migration, including an upsurge in naval personnel, nurses and engineers, military brides, and their movement to the United States and beyond.
In addition to these unique immigration, historical, and cultural contexts, existing research suggests that U.S.-born Filipino Americans (i.e., the second generation) have markedly lower college completion rates than their immigrant parents, who often hold bachelor’s degrees from the Philippines. Such an intergenerational discrepancy has not been found among other Asian American populations (Nadal 2011). According to the 1990 Census, 22 percent of second-generation Filipino Americans achieved a bachelor’s degree, as compared to 43.8 percent of all Filipino Americans (Nadal 2011, 143). A decade later, the 2000 Census again revealed a wide intergenerational gap with 44 percent foreign-born versus 31.5 percent U.S.-born Filipino Americans holding bachelor’s degrees (Bankston 2006, 195). Regionally, the 1991-2006 Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Survey demonstrated that the young adult population of second-generation Filipino Americans in San Diego showed remarkably lower occupational and educational achievements than their parents (Zhou and Xiong 2005).5 Numerous authors have also shown how second-generation Filipinos are falling behind their other Asian American counterparts, such as East Asians and Vietnamese, both in college attendance and retention rates (Zhou and Xiong 2005; Nadal 2011; Okamura and Agbayani 1997; Okamura 2008).
While there is no single explanation for Filipino Americans’ decreasing levels of college completion, several factors might be at play. We know that race/ethnicity is generally an important variable in school achievement, in that non-Hispanic Whites and Asians tend to have higher levels of educational attainment than Blacks and Hispanics (U.S. Census Bureau 2012, 1-2; 13). While theories explaining the educational achievement gap are complex, many focus on how structural disparities—e.g. differing socio-historical contexts; varying levels of socioeconomic status; and social capital based on racial/ethnic position shape students’ environments and opportunities to succeed in school (Kao and Thompson 2003). Structural theories also consider how racial/ethnic discrimination, whether embedded in school structures or perceived at the interpersonal level (or a combination of the two), constrain the educational mobility of minority groups (Solórzano and Ornelas 2002; Cabrera et al. 1999). Other variables may cause educational outcomes among and between racial/ethnic groups to vary even further. For instance, men and women continue to exhibit differences in high school and postsecondary completion rates, indicating that sex/gender plays a role in school achievement (U.S. Census Bureau 2012, 1; 4). Regional differences, which manifest in differing structures of opportunity for educational attainment in different locations or parts of the country, may also be considered (Krodzycki 2004). Finally, a growing number of people across the United States identify as more than one race or ethnicity, and research has begun to explore how the experience of being mixed-race or mixed-ethnicity shapes social outcomes, particularly those of young adults (Johnson and Nagoshi 1986; Choi et al. 2012).
The aforementioned factors affect both Filipino Americans and other Asian Americans, but the specific nature of the factors is especially unique to the former, which may affect their trajectory of intergenerational educational mobility. Some authors suggest that Filipino Americans today are socioeconomically disadvantaged, having lower per capita income levels than other racial and ethnic groups (Lai and Arguelles 2003; Nadal 2011) and experiencing high levels of difficulty in translating former training into comparable occupations (Espiritu 2003). Others focus on racial/ethnic discrimination, such as college admissions policies that limit the access of Filipino Americans as a disadvantaged student population (Buenavista et al. 2009; Okamura 2013) and how Filipino Americans are racialized in ways that are more similar to Black and Latino Americans than to other Asian Americans (Ocampo 2010; Nadal 2008; Teranishi 2002; Okamura 2008).6 To the degree that the latter is true, one could expect that Filipinos experience an intergenerational decline similar to that of Mexican Americans (Telles and Ortiz 2008). These experiences may be further stratified based on gender, location, and racial/ethnic background. Educational outcomes may differ among young Filipino and Filipina Americans, whom studies show receive differing levels of parental support for higher education (Maramba 2008) and participate in varying levels of gender-specific “deviant” adolescent behaviors (1999; Mayeda et al. 2006; Weitz et al. 2003). We might expect educational attainment levels to vary based on regional location, since California and Hawai‘i, home to the two largest Filipino populations in the country, have very different structures of educational opportunity. Moreover, in both locations, Filipino Americans have occupied a lower SES and political position than other Asian Americans (Okamura 2010; 2013). Finally, because Filipino Americans are more likely than other Asian Americans to marry outside their race and ethnicity (Qian et al. 2001), it makes sense to ask how multiracial and/or multiethnic Filipino Americans adjust in terms of their educational outcomes.
One last possible factor for downward mobility may be due to culture. Although our study’s methodology does not allow us to directly observe the influence of culture on college completion, we raise the question of culture for a reason. Due in part to the Philippines’ unique history of colonization by both Spain and the United States, Filipino cultural influences are quite different from those of other Asians, particularly the East Asians who are most readily perceived to be model minorities. This difference, in turn, could produce a different intergenerational trajectory. However, there is a major inherent contradiction within a cultural explanation for downward mobility. Why should Filipino culture play disparate roles among immigrants and their U.S. children? In other words, culture seems to have an extremely positive effect in promoting college attainment in the Philippines for the immigrants but a noticeably weaker effect in the U.S. for those born here.
One plausible explanation is that there is a deleterious interaction between U.S. structural factors and culture, which some believe explain unique patterns of educational achievement exhibited by the children of immigrants (Zhou and Kim 2006). One might posit that Filipino ethnic culture makes U.S.-born Filipinos more susceptible to acculturation because of a shared language (English) and religion (Catholicism, a form of Christianity) with the dominant culture. When combined with a Latino racialization process, the result is downward-segmented assimilation. While we are not suggesting a simplistic cultural explanation for intergenerational mobility, we acknowledge that the interaction between cultural and structural factors can hypothetically play into Filipino Americans’ educational experiences.
While the literature suggests a general pattern of downward educational mobility among Filipino Americans that differentiates them from other Asian Americans, most of the quantitative studies have a couple of limitations. First, the existing analysis is based on case studies, cross-sectional studies, or studies of subjects who at the time are still only young adults.7 While these studies are important, they are less useful in providing more widespread evidence for downward mobility as well as evidence that this is a general trend among both younger and older cohorts of second-generation Filipino Americans. On the other hand, census data studies that have the benefit of demonstrating a national trend like downward mobility do not always provide further details on the particular variables leading to the phenomenon (or not). We might wonder who among second-generation Filipino Americans are not completing college (for example, whether downward mobility is particularly common to Filipinos in a certain part of the country). Existing interpretations of census data lack rigorous analysis of multiple variables. Our study attempts to fill some of these gaps in the previous quantitative research.

Part III: Bivariate Analysis

The quantitative analysis starts with bivariate comparisons based on data from the 2006-10 American Community Survey (ACS) public use micro-sample (PUMS). A PUMS data set contains micro-level (individual level) observations of persons and households, and its main advantage is the ability for an analyst to customize tabulations for statistics not published by the U.S. Census Bureau. Released on an annual basis, the ACS is a continuous survey that collects detailed demographic, socioeconomic, and housing data. This includes place of birth, educational attainment, sex, age, and racial/ethnic background. The ACS PUMS contains roughly a 5 percent sample of the total population. This analysis focuses on U.S.-born adults (25 years and older) who identified themselves as Filipino alone (parentage only Filipino) or Filipino in combination with one or more additional racial/ethnic groups. We also use information tabulated from the 1990 PUMS to examine adult Filipino immigrants, which is used to approximate the educational attainment of the foreign-born parents. The 1990 PUMS is based on a household survey during the decennial census and contains data similar to the ACS. The data set contains 5 percent of the population. For both periods and groups, the key indicator is having at least a bachelor’s degree.
Table 1 provides an overview of educational attainment for Filipinos and other Asian adults based on the 2006-10 ACS, and the statistics are consistent with the hypothesis of downward mobility for Filipinos.8 The overall college completion rate (percent with at least a bachelor’s degree) is slightly lower for Filipinos than for other Asians (46.9 percent versus 50.0 percent). However, the pattern is different when broken down by nativity. Among immigrants, the completion rates are roughly the same, with approximately half having at least a bachelor’s degree. It is worth noting that the proportion of foreign-born Filipinos is lower at the two extremes of the educational attainment distribution (less than high school and graduate degree). Among U.S.-born adults, the completion rate for Filipinos is substantially lower than for other Asians (37 percent versus 53 percent). Moreover, the completion rate for U.S.-born Filipinos is substantially lower than for Filipino immigrants, indicating group-level downward educational mobility across generation defined by nativity. The pattern is the opposite for other Asians, indicating group-level upward mobility.