The Rise of Asian Americans: Education Matters
By: Elaine L. Chao
(Elaine L. Chao is the first Asian American woman appointed to the Cabinet, as U.S. Secretary of Labor, 2001-2009. Below is her remarks at the panel discussion and presentation of the study by the Pew Research Center on “The Rise of Asian Americans,” held on June 19. Former Secretary Chao is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.)
I am so pleased to see this comprehensive study by the Pew Research Center on people of Asian descent in America. It’s been long in coming.
I remember when my mother, two sisters, and I arrived in America not speaking a word of English. Our family had been separated for three years as my father had immigrated to America three years earlier to establish a better life for us.
How different a place America was then. Asians comprised less than 1% of the entire U. S. population. Race was defined in black and white terms and Asians and Hispanics were exotic entities rarely seen in everyday America.
Today, Asian Americans comprise 5.8% of the U. S. population; Hispanic Americans comprise 16.7% and African Americans 12.3%. The ratio of whites in the population had dropped to 63.3%. America is truly a multi-racial society, far more diverse a society than many could have imagined 50 years ago.
Asian-Americans have begun to become more visible in other segments of our society and arena.
We now have visible Asian American CEOs, elected leaders at all levels, local, state, and federal; sports celebrities, movie stars, musicians….and even cabinet officers.
Pew has done seminal studies on other racial groups. This is the first major study on the fastest growing minority population in America, Asian Americans.
This study is one of increasing number of markers that signify that Asian Americans are a force that is being noticed. We are beginning to be acknowledged and noted as a visible, growing segment of American society.
Whether viewed through the prism of one’s own experience as an American of Asian descent or otherwise, there is much here to take note.
The traits underlying the remarkable overall success of Asian immigrants are significantly attributable to what have long been termed “traditional American values” – emphasis on hard work, education and family.
The hardest thing to overcome in America is bad or indifferent parenting. There will be endless debate over so-called “Tiger Moms,” optimal parenting strategies and arrangements. But there can be no doubt that children without the benefit of solid parenting – which includes placing a premium on quality education – have a much higher hurdle to success and happiness later in life.
This study affirms what I saw over and over again as Director of the Peace Corps, President & CEO of United Way of America and as Secretary of Labor and which we’ve seen in every monthly employment report since this horrible recession began: education matters a lot – especially in a high skilled economy like ours.
The study notes, for instance, that over half (51%) of all Chinese-Americans 25 and older and an astounding 70% of Indian-Americans have attained at least a bachelor’s degree. And 61% of Asian-Americans who arrived in the U.S. since 2008 had their college degrees when they got here – a figure twice what was occurring in 1980. The study concludes that “this is more than double the share of recent arrivals from the rest of the world, and almost surely makes these Asians the most highly educated cohort of arriving immigrants in U.S. history.”
That’s incredibly significant considering that the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows that among all Americans, the official unemployment rate for those with at least a bachelor’s degree is just 3.9%, while those with only a high school degree are experiencing an 8.1% unemployment rate and high school dropouts are suffering a 13% unemployment rate.
The latest Asian American unemployment rate according to BLS is 5.2%, against a national average of 8.2%.
Yet, Asian Americans have hurdles to overcome as well, such as language and cultural differences. This study found that nearly 37% of Asian-Americans themselves feel that they speak English “less than very well” – an obvious barrier to success.
On the other hand, a significant number of Asian-Americans have the advantage of being multi-lingual, and that is increasingly a competitive advantage as Asian countries continue to grow economically. And Asian-Americans in the study are notably more optimistic than the population at large that hard work leads to advancement – certainly a powerful motive to work hard, which does indeed enhance the prospects of success.
Only 12% of Asian Americans, given a do-over, would have remained in their native country. That is a powerful commentary on America. It is not easy for immigrants to leave their native land, family, and friends and all that is familiar to settle in a new foreign country. Yet for all of America’s critics, it remains the world’s premier beacon of hope, opportunity.
There are so many interesting findings in this study, one could go on for hours.
This study is but the first step in understanding this growing, emerging and diverse population. There is much more to discover.
Asian Americans have much to share with mainstream America. I encourage us to do so. Asian Americans have contributed a great deal to America in the past. Going forward, Asian Americans are becoming increasingly visible in all segments of our society and their voices will be increasingly sought and included in issues of national importance with implications for the future of our country. America will be richer and better for it. Thank you.