Fear of Competition? Research Shows That When Asian Students Move In, White Families Move Out

In wealthy, educated communities, evidence emerges of a new form of 鈥渨hite flight.鈥

This is a photo of three young Asian American students walking with backpacks.
Asian Americans represent the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States. (Getty Images)

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Asian Americans increasingly find themselves at the center of scorching debates over educational opportunity and fairness, whether related to at highly selective colleges or pressing concerns in school. 

Now research evidence demonstrates that they face racial isolation simply by entering the classroom. A recent study of wealthy California suburbs finds that white families drift away from public schools as more Asian students enroll in them 鈥 and fears over academic competition, rather than outright racism, may play the biggest role in driving the departures. 

Circulated this summer by the National Bureau of Economic Research, offers an unusually granular view of population-level changes in a highly affluent and desirable milieu. It also reveals a stark and somewhat disturbing response to the presence of Asian Americans, one of and highest-achieving ethnic groups in the United States.

In measure after measure, Asian Americans are shown to be America鈥檚 top-performing student racial category. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal standardized test often referred to as the Nation鈥檚 Report Card, separating Asian students from their white, African American, and Hispanic peers. Asians achieved similar results on college entrance exams, tallying scoring over 700 on the SAT math section while making up less than 6 percent of all K鈥12 students. 

This year鈥檚 landmark Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case, brought on behalf of Asian students who argued they were victims of discrimination, dramatically rolled back the use of racial preferences in college admissions. (David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Older federal data also show that, apart from testing, Asian high schoolers than students of other backgrounds, and the proportion of Asians earning college credit through Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate coursework that of whites. 

While they鈥檝e ascended to lofty altitudes in U.S. schooling 鈥 significantly ahead of whites, America鈥檚 most historically advantaged group, and vastly more so relative to other non-whites 鈥 Asian Americans have often received a frosty reception from policymakers and communities. In June, the Supreme Court ruled that the admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina discriminated against Asian applicants in order to cultivate more racial diversity on their campuses, a historic blow to the legality of affirmative action. And for nearly two decades, news accounts have highlighted areas (including in California cities ) where white families following an influx of Asian children, with some parents openly complaining of from the new arrivals.

The new study reveals that those cases were not merely anecdotes. Study co-author Leah Boustan, an economist at Princeton University, has previously investigated that saw whites quickly abandon neighborhoods as the percentage of African American inhabitants grew. But at the project鈥檚 outset, she said, the idea of flight from high-flying schoolchildren seemed 鈥渢he opposite鈥 of what one would expect from local parents.

鈥淚 would have thought that a school district with a growing number of Asian students would be seen as a positive thing,鈥 Boustan reasoned. 鈥淏ecause we have these perceptions 鈥 partially based on real data about the educational background of Asian parents, but also partially stereotypes that are expanded beyond the reality 鈥 that somehow, Asian kids would be better prepared, that they would be better peers who would elevate classroom discussion.鈥

鈥榃hite kids are generally falling behind鈥

Those assumptions may indeed have guided the white parents featured in the research, though perhaps not in a predictable direction.

Boustan and her colleagues collected public school enrollment figures from the California Department of Education between 2000 and 2016, which included demographic information about families鈥 racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. They focused on a group of 152 school districts that were suburban and comparatively well-to-do, determined by their local average incomes and percentages of students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch (a common measure of poverty in education research).
They also used U.S. Census records to determine the growth rates of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and South Asian students within those districts. Over 6 million people of Asian descent live in California, within the United States as a whole, and Asian students make up proportionally larger shares of suburban districts than urban ones. While large divergences exist between Asians of different national origin, on average, households headed by Asian Americans earn 38 percent more than the U.S. median income.

The results of the authors鈥 calculations were unmistakable: With each arrival of an Asian American student in a high-income suburban district, .6 white students left 鈥 mostly departing the community entirely, rather than relocating to a private or a charter school. After adjusting their observations for moving patterns (different sub-groups enrolled at schools at markedly different rates, with South Asian and Chinese populations growing faster than Koreans and Japanese) the effect was even greater, such that each Asian student was associated with the departure of 1.5 white students.

The strength of the correlation between Asian entrance and white exit was clear, even if the motivation wasn鈥檛. The research team considered multiple explanations behind the trend, but found reason to doubt each.

First off, no statistical relationship existed during those years between Asian American student enrollment and that of students from other groups, such as African Americans or Hispanics; therefore, white movement was a reaction not to the broader emergence of non-white neighbors, but to Asians specifically. 

But additional qualitative evidence indicates that the movement was unlikely to have been primarily generated by anti-Asian prejudice either. In responses to the , a long-running poll of public attitudes administered by the University of Chicago鈥檚 National Opinion Research Center, highly educated participants were vastly less likely than their less educated peers to say they 鈥渇eel cool鈥 toward Asian Americans, or to say they don鈥檛 trust them. And yet the suburbs included in the study were overwhelmingly populated by high-income residents with college and advanced degrees.

Leah Boustan

鈥淚f we just look at the basic correlations, we don’t see this kind of white flight from low-income suburbs,鈥 said Boustan. 鈥淭o me, this very clearly rules out basic racial animus.鈥

But the out-migration could be related to another factor: relative performance in school. According to results from California鈥檚 mandated math and reading tests, as well as its high school exit exam, the presence of Asian students in a given school during the period under observation was tied to elevated average test scores in that school 鈥 but typically not for white students. In other words, the new Asian American pupils were bringing stronger academic performance to the schools they enrolled in, but also potentially making their white classmates look somewhat worse by comparison.

Boustan said that possibility could be viewed with dread during college admissions season, when high school seniors are often considered on the basis of their class GPA rank. 

鈥淪omeone is showing up in the district who scores better than they do. On some of the tests, maybe that pulls the white scores up a bit too, and on other tests, it looks like white scores might even be falling. But in relative terms, the white kids are generally falling behind.鈥

鈥楻ace at the Top鈥

The theme of white and Asian families jostling for educational opportunity has been sounded more frequently in recent years, especially in highly educated, middle-class settings. This summer, the Supreme Court鈥檚 landmark decision in Students for Fair Admission v. Harvard showcased the comparatively superior academic credentials of many Asian applicants to elite universities, as well as the various alternative criteria 鈥 including legacy and donor status, racial preferences, extracurricular activities like sports 鈥 that colleges use to select their classes.

A similar dynamic plays out during the K鈥12 years. In 2022, Tufts University sociologist Natasha Warikoo published Race at the Top, an account of fierce academic competition among high schoolers in a wealthy, but unidentified, East Coast community. Some of the white parents she spoke with about the high-stakes atmosphere building in their local schools and fear that their own children would struggle to keep pace with their Asian classmates.

Lurking behind the discourse is the decade-old : a hyper-motivated Asian parent who pushes her child to excel in high-level coursework and seek extra instruction outside of class. Viewed as by some and an offensive stereotype by others, the notion appears to guide how some white parents perceive their Asian neighbors.

It may also reflect some bedrock truths about what different families prioritize in education and child-rearing. In this summer, researcher Ziyao Tian used microdata from consumer surveys for different families across the U.S. to show that white and Asian families differ dramatically in their annual expenditures on K鈥12 education. Not only did Asian families outspend white families overall, they were also more likely to direct their spending toward tutoring and instruction outside of school. By comparison, whites outspent Asians on sports and cultural activities like trips to parks, concerts, and museums. 

Notably, the gap in expenditures was at its greatest among highly educated families like those populating the California suburbs that Boustan studied. Asian parents with graduate degrees spent 22 percent more on tutoring for their children than similarly credentialed white parents; among parents with a high school education or less, Asians spent just 6 percent more on tutoring. In spite of the escalating disparities in spending, the Asian-white achievement gap is actually greater among families with less educational attainment.

Private tutoring centers, many employing the popular Kumon method, saw explosive growth in the 1990s and 2000s. (Wikimedia Commons)

Those findings provide an echo of looking at the incremental growth of private tutoring centers. The number of such brick-and-mortar centers (including many employing the popular ) more than tripled between 1997 and 2016, an explosion that was heavily concentrated in highly educated and high-income cities and towns. They were also disproportionately likely to be located in areas with larger percentages of immigrant and Asian residents.

Eddie Kim

Eddie Kim, a mathematics professor at Bentley University and one of the tutoring study鈥檚 co-authors, said that the purchase of additional learning opportunities outside of traditional schooling might be a partial outgrowth of middle-class status. While the top priority for many striving families is to move to a neighborhood with strong public schools, the same households must pursue alternate routes for their children鈥檚 academic development after that step has been taken.

鈥淥nce you鈥檝e moved to a particularly good school district, and you see that everyone else is already [academically] good, how do you give your child an advantage? It can鈥檛 be through the school system because every child gets the same thing,鈥 Kim posited. 鈥淭he only advantage is to look outside the school system.鈥

The findings of the Boustan paper 鈥渃licked with鈥 some of Kim鈥檚 own instincts about middle-class parents鈥 strategies around education and admission. If they feared that their children would be outshone in the classroom, they might well change schools 鈥 or even move 鈥 he said.

“When you say it out loud, it sounds very intuitive: Of course, parents aren’t just going to lie down and do nothing. If they notice something, even semi-subconsciously, they’re going to take action to support their individual child’s success.”

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