Op-Ed: Asian Americans may have an educational advantage, but they face a ‘bamboo ceiling’ at work

Students walk on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles on Jan. 30.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

In a controversial and closely watched federal trial last fall, an anti-affirmative action group, Students for Fair Admissions, argued that Harvard discriminates against Asian American applicants by holding them to higher academic standards and rating them poorly on personal characteristics.

The university does this in order to artificially suppress the rate of admission among Asian Americans, the group claimed. The solution, according to the plaintiffs: Harvard must eliminate altogether the consideration of race and ethnicity in its admissions decisions.

Students for Fair Admissions may want to rethink its stance on affirmative action. Although the group argued that affirmative action harms Asian Americans in university admissions, they failed to consider that it can help Asian Americans where it arguably matters more — in the workplace.


Our new research suggests that there is a significant attainment gap for Asian Americans in the labor market.

Asian American students who oppose affirmative action because they believe it hurts them will face a rude awakening when they leave college.

While Asian Americans graduate from college at far higher rates than white Americans, despite this educational advantage, they are less likely than whites to hold professional or managerial jobs. This is true even for most U.S.-born Asians with immigrant parents, or the so-called second generation.

We analyzed graduation rates among the five largest Asian groups in the U.S.: Chinese, Indians, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Koreans. Together, these groups account for 83% of the country’s Asian population. We found that all five groups are more likely to have graduated from college than white Americans.

Chinese are six times more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than whites, and Indians are eight times more likely, even after we adjusted for age and region of the country. Koreans and Vietnamese are almost three times more likely to have graduated college than whites, while Filipinos are almost twice as likely.

U.S.-born Asians have a distinct educational advantage over whites. But this competitive advantage disappears in the labor market, where we find clear evidence of an attainment gap.


Despite being more likely to graduate from college than whites, Indians and Koreans are no more likely to have a professional or managerial job. Vietnamese and Filipinos are less likely to have a professional job than whites.

Moreover, despite a tremendous educational advantage over African Americans, Vietnamese and Filipinos do not have a better chance of being in a professional or managerial position than African American workers.

The only Asian group that maintains their advantage once they enter the labor market is second-generation Chinese. This group is one and a half times more likely than whites to be in a professional or managerial position, after controlling for age, gender, education and region of the country.

While our study cannot explain why Chinese are exceptional in this regard, it confirms that, apart from them, the second-generation advantage is confined to education. For the majority of Asians, this educational advantage is short-lived.

Asian Americans can have exceptional educational credentials, but this alone won’t lead to the kind of professional advancement whites enjoy.

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This combination of educational achievement and persistent limits in the workplace have led social scientists to speculate that Asian Americans face a “bamboo ceiling,” an invisible barrier akin to the “glass ceiling” that women face.

Affirmative action has helped women, especially white women, begin to break through the glass ceiling. It can do the same for Asian Americans.

In fact, for many Asian American professionals, it already has. This includes both of us. Our appointments were the result, in part, of hiring initiatives designed to diversify faculty at elite universities. Elite universities, including Ivy League schools, still have predominantly white and male faculty, despite student populations that are more than one-half female and one-quarter Asian American.

Asian American students who oppose affirmative action because they believe it hurts them will face a rude awakening when they leave college. Once they enter the workplace, they will find that college degrees — even ones from elite universities — do not open as many doors for them as for their white peers.

Jennifer Lee is a professor of sociology at Columbia University. Van C. Tran is an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University.

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