Seed Award Spotlight: Dr. Sebastian Cherng

Seed Award Spotlight: Dr. Sebastian Cherng

Through support from the IHDSC Seed Award programDrs. Sumie OkazakiStella Flores, and Sebastian Cherng examine college access and persistence among urban Asian American students. Working closely with a community partner, the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF), the team has conducted interviews with New York City-based high school and college students to better understand the students’ decision making process, their transitions to college, and factors that facilitate or impede their adjustment in college. Dr. Cherng recently spoke to On the Ground about early findings, gender gaps favoring girls, and the history behind their work. His comments were edited for clarity and length.


There are decades worth of work that look at trajectories into college. In the research realm we call this life course or pathways. When researchers see Department of Education administrative data on kids in kindergarten through their transition into University, we get to see these pathways. As a researcher, it’s almost as if you’re sitting next to them as they go from middle school to high schools and college. In this body of literature, we know a lot about certain groups of youth, but we know actually very little about Asian American youth.

I think Asian Americans are not perceived as a policy problem in education research. Asian American is one of the more recent racial categories in the U.S and it encompasses almost 60% of the world population in one grouping. After 1965, the U.S. lifted restrictions on immigration from Asia, yet a large share of those who were able to make the journey came over for graduate degrees, like my parents. The typical immigrant that comes to United States is middle class, and the typical Asian immigrant that comes to the United States is also middle class. New York City, which has the largest Asian American population in the United States, is very in different from other U.S cities because it also has a very diverse Asian American population. For example, when you say “Chinese” in New York City, it can describe two large and different groups that have different outcomes.

Our seed award project is uniquely positioned in that a) we’re in New York City and we have access to administrative data and b) Sumie Okazaki is an expert in Asian American psychology and also expert qualitative researcher, and c) Stella Flores is an expert on racial/ethnic disparities in higher education. Stella Flores and I worked on the datasets and they reveal these broad inequalities. We are also asking Asian American high school and college age students and about their experiences. It’s this mixed methods and dual-pronged project to figure out: How are Asian Americans doing when we drill down into a precise definition of different subgroups? If they’re doing well or if they’re doing not doing well, what are the actual mechanisms?

There’s a huge difference between foreign-born Asian Americans and their US-born counterparts who in many ways are stereotypes as high achieving “model minorities.” Those born outside of the US have far lower academic outcomes. This pattern was true for foreign-born versus native-born Whites as well, although gaps were smaller. But then for Black and LatinX, foreign-born groups actually do slightly better.

Another finding was looking at gender differences. In immigration research there is this large characterization of immigrant parents being very tough on girls, and in some in ways that could perhaps serve as barriers to their educational achievement. Tough, not necessarily in terms of grades, but in terms of will parents let their child travel far for school or does the student have to take care of their siblings at home? Oftentimes in the quantitative realm we measure that by gender gaps, and in the United States, like most places in the world, gender gaps in education actually means how much girls are doing better than boys.

The technical term is gender gaps favoring girls, and our reference group was U.S. born White girls versus U.S. born White boys. Girls do better than boys, but then if you look across the other racial/ethnic and US/non-US born categories, those girls actually do even better than compared to boys. In other words, the gender gap favoring girls is smallest among native-born White and biggest among other groups. So that’s something that will be interesting to look at and it was particularly large among foreign-born groups. Not just foreign-born Asian American, but all groups.

Gaps, however, don’t speak to absolute levels of achievement. The descriptive patterns we find may actually reflect that boys across groups may actually be doing not really that great. It’s not that girls are doing amazingly well, it’s that they’re doing better than the boys and the boys are doing really not that great. The gap gets bigger.

We also looked at gaps in poverty. Here, the poverty gaps are not that large which means that it’s bad to be poor and it’s somewhat uniformly bad to be poor. It’s not worse for a native-born White girl who is poor versus a foreign-born Asian American boy, it’s just uniformly not good.


Dr. Sebastian Cherng is an Assistant Professor of International Education in the department of Applied Statistics, Social Science, and Humanities. Visit IHDSC’s website to learn more about the Seed Award program.