Why Asian Students Are So Important on Campus


Asian and Asian-American students, an increasing presence in our college campuses, are carrying a crucial message that the rest of Americans have trouble hearing: that college costs too much time and money to be devoted predominantly to fun and games.

Americans generally underestimate the salience of education in most Asian cultures. Take Korea. South Korea raises perhaps the highest academic hurdles for high-school seniors hoping to get into a “good” college. On one Thursday in November 2008, 590,000 high school seniors went to one of about a thousand exam centers throughout Korea to take a nine-hour test consisting mainly of multiple-choice questions. Answers to these questions would determine who got into the best colleges, and later, who would likely get the good jobs in business and government. The questions had been constructed by 400 carefully selected professors and teachers isolated for weeks at a resort surrounded by police. Examination day is taken very seriously in Korean society. The stock market and many businesses open an hour late to keep the roads clear for students traveling to the testing centers. During certain hours, planes are forbidden to take off or land so the noise won’t interfere with the listening portion of the test. Buddhist temples and Christian churches are filled with parents praying for their children’s success on the test. The Korea Electric Power Corporation placed about 4,000 technicians on duty to monitor power lines feeding the test centers. At the end of the day, the evening newspapers published the questions and the correct answers. More than 80 percent of high school graduates go on to college. Those who did poorly on the test may have waited a year to retake it.

 China and Japan

Like South Korea, other Asian countries emphasize the importance of education.  China screens high-school seniors for college admission with a National Higher Education Entrance Examination similar to the Korean system. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, Mao Tse-tung closed Chinese universities and exiled intellectuals and professionals to the peasant hinterland; but in 1977 Chinese universities reopened and entrance exams were reestablished. However, the reopening of universities and the rebuilding of faculties took time, and meanwhile enrollments were small and consequently even more highly selective than they had been before the Cultural Revolution.

Japanese culture too values education very highly. Nevertheless, Japan did not expand its system of higher education after World War II to the same extent that the United States did, so most Japanese colleges, with less space, can demand considerable academic achievement from applicants. As in Korea, Japanese high-school students are selected for admission by long and difficult entrance examinations. However, in Japan each university has its own examination, so students who wish to apply to several institutions must take several different exams.

 Family Support of Education

The main transmission agent of Asian stress on the value of education is the family and, more specifically, Asian mothers.  Although this is changing as women take jobs in factories and offices in Asian countries, women have traditionally stayed at home and devoted a great deal of time and effort to encouraging their children to do school work. In Japan, for instance, pre-adolescence hardly existed after World War II in the American sense of playing baseball or other games with friends in the neighborhood.  The business of childhood was to do well in school, and that meant virtually full-time studying either at home or at cram schools where their families paid for their enrollment in order to supplement the education provided by the official schools.  Mothers supervised homework preparation of their children relentlessly so that their children, particularly sons, could compete successfully on examinations, ultimately in university entrance exams. On the evening before the day when numbered applications for the entrance exams of a prestigious university are to be given out, some mothers line up in the cold and spend the night waiting for a low number on the exam application form. The anxious mothers understood that a low number on the application form did not occupy a formal place in the grading system, but they hoped it might make a marginal difference to the grader.

Although a great many Americans also regard education as important, the typical American attitude toward educational achievement is obviously far more relaxed than it is in Asian cultures and Asian families.  Consequently, whatever the innate abilities for intellectual achievement of American kids, some make massive commitments to basketball, football, or more exotic sports like surfing instead of gradually developing the reading skills and the cultural literacy they ought to have by the time they reach college.  Recovering from these deficiencies later is very difficult. Those who aspire to become professional baseball players know that they have to practice from an early age–hitting, throwing, running and fielding– to develop the capabilities that they will need to be a professional player. Due to a more relaxed cultural view of educational preparation, most American youngsters do not seem aware of the analogous connection between learning academic skills thoroughly at an early age and doing well in college. Why not? Many American children lack the parental supervision in academic matters that Asians children receive. Young children do not have a long time horizon. Without the encouragement of parents, they find it much more pleasant to watch television or play with friends than to do boring homework. The younger the child, the harder it is to learn to defer gratification. The parent has to become a supervising nag, and this has to go on for years.

A recent New York Times story about SAT coaching shows how close the adult monitoring can be–a junior at Niskayuna High in suburban Albany, who willingly enrolled in an outside coaching class that required homework, somehow learned that only on six consecutive days of failing to turn in his homework would his delinquency be noticed. So he turned in his assignments only on the sixth day. To his surprise, a vigilant staff member of the tutorial service detected his ploy, telephoned his mother, who scolded him, and he resumed doing the work.

 Asian Students and Diversity

Despite the alleged benefits of “diversity” in the American educational system, in the actual behavior of pre-adolescents and adolescents, diversity does not appear to be the most important characteristic that youngsters themselves use in their choice of friends and companions. If you observe college students walking, eating or choosing where to sit in a large lecture hall, you are far more likely to see males with other males and females with other females, blacks sitting with blacks and Asians with other Asians. But Asians, despite their reputation for remaining aloof on campuses, seem good at finding commonalities based on shared interests. They are visible, not segregated in Asian enclaves by prejudice against them or by choosing friends exclusively from their own ethnic group, and they excel, on the average, on academic accomplishments.  It is almost inevitable for them to be role models for less academically single-minded students to emulate.

As a group, Asian students are clearly destined to become middle-class, whether or not they came from low-income, poorly educated family backgrounds. In New York City, Asians, mostly from working-class immigrant families, account  for 14% of  public school children, but for 50% of the students at the city’s eight elite public high schools that grant admission by tests. The resulting upward mobility is obvious. As PJ Media columnist Daniel P. Goldman wrote last week, “My own solidly middle-class neighborhood in Manhattan is slowly becoming Asian, as the successful children of the last generation of Asian immigrants reach the income levels to buy Manhattan apartments-not the plutocrats’ pads on Park Avenue to the west of my corner of the island, but still within walking distance of many of the city’s best-known private schools.”

Sociological discussions of the social class of college students often miss the crucial point that education is a social escalator when they stress where students came from as children rather than where they are headed as adults. Similarity of class destinations is the glue that draws together youngsters of different genders, ethnicities, colors, heights, and weights. The Asian impact on college cultures will occur slowly, but as that impact becomes clearer, the culture of fun at all costs, including alcohol and drug abuse, will likely recede.  Devoutly to be wished, no?


  • Jackson Toby

    Jackson Toby is professor of sociology emeritus at Rutgers University, where he was director of the Institute for Criminological Research. He is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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