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Aida Santos-Mattingly remembers that, as a child, teachers saw that she was Asian so they figured she must be smart, especially at math.
"I wasn't, so I see it as a myth. But we as Asians try to live up to that stereotype," says Santos-Mattingly, a Filipina who is an Asian representative to the state school board's Coalition of Minorities Advisory Committee.
Myth or not, new data show that Asians in America and Utah really do achieve better in school than all other racial and ethnic groups, including whites.
Five-year survey figures released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau show that half of all Asians nationally older than age 25 have at least a bachelor's degree. The number is lower in Utah, where 41.3 percent of Asians have such degrees, but that is still much higher than other groups.
In Utah, 31.7 percent of white non-Latinos older than 25 have at least a bachelor's degree, followed by 24.5 percent of blacks; 12.5 percent of Pacific Islanders; 11.2 percent of Latinos; and 10.3 percent of American Indians.
For comparison, the national averages for obtaining such degrees are 30.9 percent for non-Latino whites (lower than in Utah); 17.7 percent of blacks (lower than Utah); 14.4 percent of Pacific Islanders (higher than Utah); 13 percent of Latinos (higher than Utah); and 13 percent of American Indians (higher than Utah).
The Census Bureau released an analysis Thursday outlining those findings to accompany the release of 2006-10 American Community Survey data, comparing a variety of social and economic data for such groups for the first time in five years.
"As the U.S. population becomes more racially and ethnically diverse," the analysis said, "it is important to examine educational attainment among population groups, which is a strong predictor of economic well-being."
Santos-Mattingly, who helps advise the Utah Board of Education on such matters, has some ideas about why Asians have that high achievement which others may want to copy.
"With many others, when the bell rings at the end of the day, that is the end of education. Not with Asians. Parents are collaborators with teachers. It is the cultural norm," she said, adding many Asian cultures insist that children study hard and grow up to serve others.
Not only do parents give positive reinforcement, she said, "they also want to see results. So a kid can't just say they are trying hard. The attitude is: You've got to do it."
Santos-Mattingly said the stereotype that Asians are smart and high-achievers is a bit of a two-edged sword.
"We try to live up to that, so that helps," she said. "But Asians are like everyone else. Some Asians drop out, too. So that really hurts their self-esteem."
High achievement may also result from many Asian cultures working as a community to help children learn and behave.
"I always felt like I had five or six pairs of eyes on me. If I did something, it got back to my mother quickly," Santos-Mattingly said. "It was like working for the FBI."
Percentage of those older than age 25 who hold at least a bachelor's degree among Utah racial and ethnic groups:
Asians • 41.3 percent
Whites • 31.7 percent
Blacks • 24.5 percent
Pacific Islanders • 12.5 percent
Latinos • 11.2 percent
American Indians • 10.3 percent
Source: U.S. Census Bureau