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Asian Americans Are High Achievers Because They Work Harder

By Carl Engelking
May 5, 2014 11:06 PMNov 19, 2019 8:34 PM


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Asian Americans are academic high-achievers. Though they make up just 5 percent of the U.S. population, Asian Americans represent 12 to 18 percent

of the student body at Ivy League universities. Compared to white students they have higher grades and standardized test scores, and are more likely to finish high school and attend college. Many theories exist as to why this is, but none has been widely accepted. Now, researchers, having analyzed longitudinal datasets, believe the recipe for Asian Americans' educational advantage is simple: They exert greater academic effort than their white peers.

Hard Work Pays Off

Researchers began with data from two national, longitudinal surveys that followed students from kindergarten through high school. In total over 4,000 white students and nearly 1,000 Asian American students were included. The data included GPA, standardized test scores, teacher reports, socio-demographic information and immigration status. Using the data, they tested three popular theories to explain Asian Americans' superior academic performance: socio-demographic characteristics, innate cognitive ability, and work ethic. They found that both socio-demographic characteristics and cognitive ability didn’t significantly contribute to the achievement gap. When students started kindergarten, for example, there was no discernible difference in the cognitive abilities of Asian Americans and white Americans. However, over time, the achievement gap grew. But why?

A Culture of Achievement

Researchers believe the gap grew due to differences in tenacity. Asian American students, according to survey responses, tended to believe intelligence is something that could be developed, whereas white students viewed cognitive abilities as inborn qualities. Asian American students also said their parents exerted more pressure on them to succeed than white Americans did. Researchers said Asian Americans’ cultural orientation and immigrant status are key drivers to a high-effort mentality. Asian Americans, they said, view education as a primary means for upward mobility. Researchers published their findings Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

But this high academic effort may come at a cost. Asian American students reported that they felt worse about themselves and spent less time with friends than their white peers. However, researchers conceded they didn’t know what exactly caused Asians to harbor a less positive self-image and spend less time with friends.

Photo credit: Tom Wang/Shutterstock

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