Asian Americans Are High Achievers Because They Work Harder

By Carl Engelking | May 5, 2014 2:06 pm

asian student

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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
  • Van Snyder

    There’s nothing new here. Scientific American looked at this nearly forty years ago and reached the same conclusion.

    • GoldenBoy

      We need to replicate studies, because one study or a few studies might not be enough to reach a solid conclusion.

      That being said, I’m a teacher, and the top university in my country teaches that difference in achievement in different races is mainly due to genetic differences… So the “news” didn’t reach everyone, and many still try to promote ancient, refuted and harmful ideas about the nature / nurture question.

  • pzed

    As I understand it, IQ before the age of 14 is relatively fluid, so kindergarten IQ wouldn’t be a reliable measure of very much.

  • Buddy199

    As if a study would prove one racial group has superior brain function. It’s culture. The emphasis put on hard work and study. As opposed to video games and sneakers. Big surprise.

    • Longmire

      So I wonder why African Americans were not included in the study.

      • Buddy199


  • kakeyed

    “Compared to white students”… OMG, that’s so racist! Everybody always picks on Whites! I’m so tired of being discriminated against. I think I see a lawsuit coming on…..

    • Breken Cowan

      Oh please SHUT UP!!! Its the truth. You cannot sue someone for telling the truth of what they found in a study. DERRR. And it is true by the way, Asians are academically high achievers…(I am white by the way and cannot be offended by the truth! Americans can be academically very LAZY)

      • kakeyed

        DERRR. It’s called sarcasm, Cowan.
        I was ribbing our non-pasty-white brethren for being so self-conscious and defensive about every little thing said about their race, color, religion, dress code or nose hairs.
        And I agree that offending red-necks is not an easy task.

        • Breken Cowan

          Oh good- I got you:)

    • Soothsayer

      You’re going to see a lot more of that as the world become more inter racial and moves away from the ancient idea of white superiority(especially in america and Europe where whites are concentrated). Whites have been looking down on other races for ages now.

  • joe-schmoe

    Parents who “don’t want to push their kids” are just saying with different words that they don’t want to lead. Bunch of selfish cop outs running away from responsibility.

    Drives me nuts what’s happened to the American white race. We were just like the Asians till we all got comfortable and lazy. There’s no excuse for the current situation. None at all.

  • Ala Brazi

    Achivement should evalute how much an indivisual is able to live full balanced well life while enjoying the process of self development. Many actually are erasing big part of their life aiming to live life when their body become too old. Achievements that produce merly hardworking unbalanced society on the cost of having joy and satisfaction in life is deemed to create conflicts and collapse. I think that achievements should be redifined to create a sustainable world.

  • socal33

    I guess the title, ” Blacks don’t work as hard as Asian” wasn’t politically correct enough? Didn’t Jimmy the Greek get fired for saying that blacks were naturally born athletes? Why doesn’t this study get hammered as racially insensitive?

    • Soothsayer

      Because blacks are sensitive to the issue of race. They are very vigalent of anything that can be seen asracist. That’s why blacks can make jokes about whites all they want and crack it up, but as soon as a white drops a black joke the bullets come flying.

  • BlueCornMoon

    This is very true! As a public school teacher it was obvious . In class the Asian kids were most attentive in class; ignored other kids’ bad behavior & peer pressure, always did their homework, & were rewarded by parents for good grades. Some American & other immigrant kids would say they were just smarter. I told them that they worked harder & valued education more & that that’s the way kids used to be raised. Black families in my neighborhood raised their kids like that when I was growing up. Most went to college

  • Zeus Abe Bugas

    I think what’s the study shows is about reaping from what you sow. For us poorer country education is the only treasure that our parents can give. And as well the only way to better opportunity. That’s why we study hard. I’m Asian.


    Not one article I have read today concerning the achievement gap has placed the blame on parental makeup of the homes. Another article stated that African Americans had the worst scores (30 points behind whites on math alone), followed by Hispanics with better cores but less than whites, followed by whites and the highest scores going to Asians. Take the divorce/ single parent rate and it follows the exact same trend! Two parent homes = more attention allowed per child to read with them and go over homework.

  • SkyC

    As long as affirmative action stays off the books, the more likely Asians will start taking over all of the universities in this country by the end of this century.

  • bob

    “They found that both socio-demographic characteristics and cognitive
    ability didn’t significantly contribute to the achievement gap.”

    Actually, looking at the subgroup data provided by PNAS, only East Asians had a cognitive advantage. The data showed a cognitive advantage of approximately 1/3, which is quite significant. The rest of the Asians ( Southeast, Filipinos, and South) had no cognitive advantage.


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