Douglas Todd: Policy gap as immigrant students excel in universities

posted on February 21, 2014

BY Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

Most people who have attended Grade 12 graduation ceremonies or spent time on university campuses in Vancouver or Toronto have seen the signs.

BY Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

Most people who have attended Grade 12 graduation ceremonies or spent time on university campuses in Vancouver or Toronto have seen the signs.

But some may still be surprised by a study by Statistics Canada, Garnett Picot and Feng Hou that verifies that young Canadians with immigrant backgrounds are almost twice as likely to go to university as students whose parents were born in Canada.

The study’s hard numbers confirm impressions obtained on Canada’s major urban university campuses, where visible minorities tend to prevail on honour rolls and in business, science and engineering programs.

“Students with immigrant backgrounds in Canada display a significant advantage regarding university attendance,” write Picot, of Queen’s University, and Hou, of the University of Victoria.

The social policy experts found 50 per cent of students who immigrated to Canada go to university, compared to 31 per cent of students who had one parent who is an immigrant and only 25 per cent of students whose parents were both born in Canada.

The university success story is strongest among ethnic Chinese.

“Students with Chinese origins are 40 percentage points more likely to attend university than those with Canadian-born parents,” write Picot and Heng Hou. “That means that almost three-quarters of students with Chinese origins attend university, more than twice the rate among students with Canadian-born parents.”

What are the policy implications of this?

The Picot and Hou study, which is supported by emerging research across Canada and the U.S., highlights an awkward reality for governments and school officials.

Public officials are still formally required to channel energy into affirmative action programs for visible minorities, English-as-a-second language students and immigrants. But these studies show it is the students of those with Canadian parents who are falling behind.

Some scholars are calling for a shift in education priorities in light of studies done by Picot, Hou and Grace Kao in the U.S., where data also show that children of immigrants have, on average, higher wages and educational levels than children of the American-born population.

One of the many revealing reality checks to come out of the Picot and Hou study is its confirmation that most students in North America who learn English as a second language are not at a disadvantage because of it.

While many immigrant background children do relatively poorly on standardized literacy tests at age 15, the vast majority have dramatically overcome the language challenge by Grade 12. This is especially the case, say studies, for Chinese students and Asian females.

“Poor performing secondary school students (at age 15) … with Chinese backgrounds were seven times more likely to attend university than their poor-performing counterparts with a Canadian background. Low-performing students with other Asian backgrounds were four times more likely.”

Almost as an afterthought, the Picot and Hou survey notes that students in Canada who have immigrant backgrounds in Europe don’t do any better at university than third-generation Canadians.

What’s behind the incredible university success of Canadian students with Asian backgrounds?

That’s the question Yale law professor Amy Chua wrote about in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and her latest book (co-written with husband Jed Rubenfeld), The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.

Breaking the unwritten rules of multicultural discourse, Chua argues people of Chinese and Jewish backgrounds, along with Iranians, Koreans and South Asians, have three traits that gear them to success: a group superiority complex, individual anxiety and the ability to control their impulses.

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