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Why Asian Americans Excel at Academics

New research suggests hard-driving “tiger moms” are just one factor.
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(Photo: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

(Photo: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

Why do Asian Americans, as a group, tend to excel at academics? Newly published research arrives at a simple answer: They work harder than their non-Asian peers.

The study also attempts to answer the less-simple question of why these kids tend to put more effort into their studies, and comes up with two likely answers: The culturally based belief that effort leads to achievement, and the fact that recent immigrants are highly motivated to succeed.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sociologists Amy Hsin of Queens College and Yu Xie of the University of Michigan analyze data from two nationally representative studies: The Kindergarten Cohort of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which tracks children who entered kindergarten in 1998; and the Educational Longitudinal Study, which looked at the habits and achievements of high school students who were sophomores in 2004.

The first group of kids was tracked through eighth grade; their scores were based on their teachers’ assessment of their proficiency in reading, math, and general knowledge, as well as their “attentiveness, task persistence, and eagerness to learn.”

The high school students’ scores were based on their grade point averages and performance on standardized tests. In addition, their teachers reported their level of attentiveness in class, and noted whether they felt “the student works hard for his/her grades.”

There is a downside to all of this academic success: Asian American students feel less good about themselves, and spend less time with friends, than their white peers.

The researchers report that the achievement gap between Asian American and white American kids starts off as small to non-existent, but gradually grows, peaking in 10th grade. This suggests the difference reflects “academic effort rather than differences in cognitive ability,” they write.

Crunching the numbers further, they find socioeconomic factors, such as the fact that Asian Americans kids “are more likely to live in stable, two-parent families with higher incomes,” explains “almost none of the overall Asian-white gap in academic effort.”

So what does make a difference? The researchers find that “differences in immigration status” are the biggest factor, followed by “differences in cultural orientation.”

“Regardless of ethnicity,” they write, “immigrants are self-selected in terms of their motivation to succeed and their optimism for future success.”

“Given their marginal position as relative newcomers to the U.S. with few political and social resources, Asian Americans may see educational credentials as not only having symbolic value in terms of conferring social prestige, but as having great instrumental value as the surest way to attain upward mobility,” the researchers add.

The importance of this motivating factor is reinforced by the finding that “their educational advantages decline over generations,” Hsin and Xie write, “suggesting that third- and later-generation Asian-Americans do not benefit from these resources as much as first- or second-generation.”

Regarding cultural differences about learning, “the results show that Asian Americans are less likely than whites to believe that ability is inborn, and more likely to believe that one can learn to be good at math,” the researchers write. While it’s likely that this attitude derives in part from Confucian teachings, Hsin and Xie note that it is not unique to Chinese Americans, but rather is found in immigrants from throughout Asia.

So what about the “tiger mom” hypothesis, which suggests Asian mothers demand more of their kids, and see to it that they achieve? The study suggests it is, indeed, one factor in their academic success, although—contrary to the stereotype—this approach appears to be more prevalent among immigrants from India than those from China.

“South Asian parents have the highest educational expectations relative to whites,” they write, “followed by Filipinos, Southeast Asians, and East Asians.”

Beyond strict mothers, the drive for academic success “is sustained and reinforced” by other factors, including “ethnic communities that offer newly arrived Asian immigrants access to ... resources such as supplemental schooling, private tutoring and college preparation,” the researchers add.

Hsin and Xie note there is a downside to all of this academic success: Asian American students feel less good about themselves, and spend less time with friends, than their white peers.

“The extraordinarily high educational expectations that Asian-American youth hold for themselves, as well as the expectations parents and society set for them, (may) cause those who fail to meet expectations to feel like failures,” they warn.

That very real problem aside, this report reinforces the idea that America’s continued success is tied to the fact we are a nation of immigrants—a land that attracts motivated people who work hard to succeed, and instill those same values in their children. Perhaps rather than tiger moms, we should call them eagle moms.