The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

It felt more like an initiation to a secret society than a meeting with friends. In a local cafe in a suburb 10 minutes east of Los Angeles, a group of three ethnically Chinese high school students founded our own academic club. In the Brotherhood of Social Sciences—B.O.S.S., we call it—we are all equals in our passion for social science inquiry.

We felt like rebels in a school district where top students, who were mostly Asian, opted to study the stereotypical subjects that would result in financial stability and parental bragging rights. Of the top 10 students in my graduating class from Mark Keppel High School last year, all Asian, eight of them are pursuing degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields in college. The other two students are in pre-law programs. None are studying social science disciplines—economics, psychology, and sociology, to name a few. This result is poised to replicate itself for this year’s graduating class, and a similar pattern follows at other high schools in the Alhambra Unified School District.

Asian American students
Arthur Wang

The trend toward Asian students choosing STEM careers is national in scope. In a 2011 study published by Georgetown University using data from the US Census’ 2009 American Community Survey, “What’s it Worth?,” the university reported that of the top 10 undergraduate degrees for Asian Americans in 2009, nine were in STEM fields, with computer engineering, statistics, and neuroscience topping the list. Foreign language was the only exception, coming in at number five.

I wanted to know why Asians tend to choose STEM over the social sciences, where Asians are underrepresented, and which can lead to methodological research careers that generate social change and much-needed political representation. Is it parents? Or perhaps the schools? A voluntary response survey I conducted of 70 current and former students from AUSD and neighboring districts asked respondents about their potential or current field of study, what influenced their choices, and gave room for students to weigh in on the question. I found that the salary and stability attributed to STEM careers is a top priority for Asian parents. One Asian graduate wrote, “I find that parents do put a lot of pressure on their children to obtain a job that makes more money.” This opinion was shared by a majority of respondents, many of whom are children of immigrants, and is supported by research by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Grace Kao in the journal Sociology of Education, which found that “foreign-born parents [of all ethnic groups] had significantly higher educational aspirations for their children than did native-born parents.”

I am convinced that this can cause high levels of dissatisfaction. Despite the high numbers of Asians entering STEM fields, there is also a considerable percentage of them who leave, suggesting that many were unsatisfied with their field of study. A national report by STEMConnector found that 33 percent of Asian students opt to study in STEM fields when entering college. But a six-year longitudinal study conducted between 2003 and 2009 by the National Center for Education Statistics found that despite being better prepared in math than other ethnic groups, almost 1 out of 4 Asian four-year college students who entered college with a STEM degree in mind changed their majors to a non-STEM field.

Student Voices

What I would do with more money for California schools

This essay is part of a collaboration between The Hechinger Report and USC Annenberg’s Reporter Corps, which trains young adults from diverse and under-represented neighborhoods to report on their own communities. Students from Alhambra, California — a predominantly immigrant Los Angeles suburb — wrote about how they’d spend a new influx of funding for the state’s schools.

These numbers suggest that Asian students may tend to choose a STEM field as their “default” upon entering college. Patrice Flores, my English teacher at Mark Keppel High School during junior year, said that students initially “choose whatever major their parents think is best for them,” but many “change majors once they go to college, usually during sophomore year.”

Bill Nguyen, a first-generation college student, immigrant, and sophomore at Columbia University, is a STEM leaver. As a high school student, he said “the model minority myth unconsciously infiltrated my ambitions … I always said that I wanted to become a doctor until my junior year,” he said. Because he lived in the Silicon Valley, he was constantly encouraged to pursue a career there and entered college as a computer science major.

“Through my involvement with groups like the Quest Scholars Network, a safe space for socioeconomically disadvantaged students, and the Asian American Alliance, an advocate for Asian and Pacific Islander Americans on campus and beyond, I switched over to math and human rights,” Nguyen said. He later dropped math as well, adding that “while I was studying for an abstract algebra midterm [last fall], I realized that I couldn’t follow through with my plans.”

Social scientists have long wrestled with why Asians, notably East Asians, tend to study in STEM fields, with early studies dating back to the 1980s. UC Irvine Sociology professor Jennifer Lee says the root of this trend is a “narrow framing of success” by Chinese and other Asian immigrant parents. “Most Chinese immigrant parents … define success as getting straight A’s … and becoming a doctor, lawyer, pharmacist, or engineer,” she wrote in the Guardian.

Asian American students
Arthur Wang with members of B.O.S.S. – Brotherhood of Social Sciences.

My survey also found that Asian students often choose certain majors or careers over others because of these family values and parental pressures, sometimes putting aside their own preferences out of respect to their parents. Compared to other ethnic groups, “Asian youth felt a greater obligation to their immigrant parents and believed that it was their responsibility to the family to do well in school,” researchers Barbara Schneider and Yongsook Lee found in a 1990 study on Asian achievement for Anthropology & Education Quarterly.

While Asian students may be pressured to study STEM by their parents, the education at Alhambra high schools probably plays a role as well. The lack of new social science curricula during the last decade does little to encourage these students to opt out of the STEM-doctor-lawyer orthodoxy. Elective social science courses previously offered at Alhambra High School, such as “Intro to Social Science,” “Age of Chivalry,” and “Classical Age,” were cut over a decade ago, said retired teachers Sherri Bottger and Joe Petralia in an Alhambra Source interview.

Classes like these did not return in years following because the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001 required schools to emphasize assessments in English language arts and math, subsequently reducing instructional time for social sciences, humanities, and the arts, according to Brad Walsh, AUSD’s Director of Secondary Education. Course catalogs in three AUSD high schools from 2006 and 2013 reveal few significant changes or additions to the number of social science classes offered.

According to Walsh, the schedule is built on student requests and new classes require a qualified, credentialed teacher who is willing to create a course that will be subject to a top-to-bottom district review. While NCLB hurt the social sciences, district budget cuts did not specifically target any one subject, he noted.

This could change. With a new state funding law, the Local Control Funding Formula, the district will be receiving additional funding for low-income students, foster youth, and English-Language learners. Walsh was optimistic LCFF would enable Alhambra’s schools to provide more access to social science classes.

Since social science coursework requires critical thinking central to the new Common Core State Standards, and can bolster skills in language arts and even mathematics, “Social science can lead the school,” Walsh said.

I could only imagine how my interest toward the social sciences would have developed earlier if I first acquainted myself with sociology in a high school classroom setting. LCFF is an opportunity for the district to fund more social science electives that would help students see their options. This is especially important for Asian students, who may be missing the opportunity to pursue fields they would enjoy and could contribute to. Many immigrant parents lack the exposure and knowledge of the social sciences and are much less likely to inform their children about it—so it’s time that schools opened up more windows for students.

This story was produced by USC Annenberg’s Reporter Corps, which trains young adults from diverse and under-represented neighborhoods to report on their own communities, in partnership with The Hechinger Report. The local news site Alhambra Source, which is also affiliated with USC, hosted the project.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *