Asian Americans have been averaging very high levels of education since the mid-20th century, with a much higher likelihood of completing college degrees than their similarly aged peers from other racial/ethnic groups.
A recent qualitative study conducted by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou argues that Asian Americans not only average high levels of education, but Asian Americans’ educational chances are also less hampered by having parents with low education levels than other racial/ethnic groups.
This argument flies against traditional sociological arguments about education. Foundational social mobility theory contends that parents’ education is one of the strongest predictors of their children’s chances of obtaining a college degree or more. For example, first generation college students are much less likely to attend and complete college than their peers whose parents have a college degree.
My study, published in the American Journal of Sociology, attempts to determine how widespread this phenomenon is among Asian-American groups by examining Asian Americans’ education patterns across the United States. Following Lee and Zhou I suggest that Asian Americans average high levels of education degrees completed by young adulthood regardless of their parents’ education background. I refer to this education pattern as “high educational mobility”.
My analysis provides very strong support for high educational mobility among some, though not all, Asian American young adults. The children of Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Vietnamese immigrants average very high levels of education compared with other racial/ethnic groups. In addition, their own education is not influenced by their parents’ education.
For other racial/ethnic groups in the study, parents’ education predicts their children’s education. This includes other Asian American groups (e.g., Filipinos or later generation Japanese Americans), who also do not average similarly high levels of education.
Education gaps are extremely wide among young adults from highly disadvantaged backgrounds. For example, one analytic model in my article shows that almost 80 percent of the children of Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Vietnamese immigrants whose parents have less than a high school degree complete a bachelor’s degree, while less than 20 percent of their later generation White American peers complete a bachelor’s degree.
These findings raise the question of what might be driving high educational mobility among these groups of Asian Americans. One possibility is that many Asian Americans see obtaining advanced degrees as a familial obligation, leading to high levels of internal and external pressure to achieve in school.
My analysis shows that the high educational mobility among the children of Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Vietnamese immigrants occurs—in part—because these Asian American young adults had very high levels of internal and familial pressures—as indicated in respondent’s expectations and achievement pressure from their parents—to complete high levels of education during adolescence.
These findings are very important for our understanding of the role of education in upward social mobility.
First, the findings run against traditional theory which argues that parental education is one of the strongest predictors of their children’s education. My study finds this type of inequity among White, Black, Mexican American, and later generation Asian American young adults. In contrast, even the most disadvantaged children of Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Vietnamese Americans average high levels of education.
Second, the results show that that these Asian Americans’ high educational mobility is driven by their and their families’ mindsets about education and opportunities in the United States. As described in Lee and Zhou’s book, a distinct perspective on the importance of education is prevalent in many Asian American communities, emphasizing the extreme importance of completing advanced degrees from prestigious colleges.
My article suggests we should continue to explore similar education patterns among immigrant populations in the United States, such as the children of African, Eastern European, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, or South American immigrants. It is likely that many young people from these populations also experience intense pressures to achieve high levels of education in order to further their families’ mobility.
These familial pressures though may have a downside. Scholars need to continue to consider the price of internal and external pressures on young Asian Americans. Many Asian American students in high school, college, and graduate school experience intense levels of stress and anxiety from the pressure to succeed, potentially leading to mental health concerns.
In short, my study finds an exception to traditional sociological theory on educational attainment, which argues that economic status is one of the strongest predictors of educational chances. In contrast with the prevailing economic inequality in the United States, many Asian Americans from the most disadvantaged family backgrounds complete bachelor’s and graduate degrees.
Identifying this exception to traditional theory is important, but replicating the mobility success of Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Vietnamese immigrants is much more difficult. It is tempting to try to simply translate their high educational mobility across disadvantaged youth, but the circumstances that produce high levels of educational achievement among disadvantaged Asian-American immigrants are not easily reproducible.
Samuel H. Fishman, “Educational Mobility among the Children of Asian American Immigrants” in American Journal of Sociology 2020. For a free, pre-publication version of the article, click here.
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