Life in an affluent suburb can feel like a real pressure cooker. You are surrounded by high-achieving peers who excel not only academically but also on the field and on the performance stage, too. Everyone’s stellar achievements can seem to come with ease and appear to demonstrate natural talents well beyond those found in other schools.
But all of these achievements can make life feel hard, as if you are swimming upstream. It’s easy to think you need to be better and better—hit higher notes in acapella, run faster on the field, and take more AP classes—to even have a shot at getting into a “good” college. And getting into a “good” college often feels imperative. After all, most of the adults around you have a college degree and one from a selective college at that.
If you feel like this, you’re not alone. I spent three years researching an affluent suburb (a town I call “Woodcrest”). I found frustration among parents and kids alike about the increasing standards for getting ahead. This was especially true of white parents who tied those increasing standards to ethnic change.
Alongside increasing achievement levels, affluent suburbs are growing in diversity — most are no longer the lily-white havens that many still imagine when they hear the word “suburb.” Much of that change has been driven by Indian and Chinese professionals who have come to the United States in increasing numbers over the past few decades, facilitated by a U.S. immigration policy that encourages highly skilled migration from Asia.
Professional immigrants bring with them a focus on academic excellence, especially in STEM fields, and cultural know-how for acing academics. This is, of course, what helped them get the professional jobs that brought them to the U.S. in the first place. They frequently enroll their children in after-school tutoring and math classes to facilitate academic excellence, just as they were enrolled during their childhoods in India and China. And these influences pay off: They lead Asian American kids to academic excellence.
In many places across the country, Asian American kids are outperforming their peers of all other racial groups academically, including whites. Of course, there is much variation — valedictorians who are white, Asian Americans who struggle academically. But the trend is undeniable and it can lead to tensions between Asian and white parents striving to help their kids get ahead. Nowhere are these tensions more obvious than in the college application process, for which parents see their children in competition with their peers at school.
As I listened to parents express these tensions in Woodcrest, I empathized with their situation. I felt relieved that my own town did not feel nearly as competitive for my children and I wondered what I would do if I lived in a town like theirs. I felt empathy for the immigrant parents, who reminded me so much of my own Indian immigrant parents in their emphasis on extra math outside of school, advanced academic classes in the summer, and more. But I also felt empathy for the white, U.S.-born parents I spoke with, who reminded me that I am not my parents. While I did sign up one of my children for after-school math (but not one that gives any homework), I have also pushed each of them to find and excel in a sport they love.
Still, as I stepped back, I realized that the concentration of university degrees and ones mostly from fancy colleges, led families in Woodcrest to a distorted sense of their position in society. They were all engaged in a “race at the top,” but failed to see how they already existed at the top. In their frustrations over fair ways to get their child to gold, versus silver or bronze, they didn’t see that everyone in their town was virtually assured a medal.
That’s because nearly all children in towns like Woodcrest are incredibly privileged, whether or not they play club baseball, are enrolled in multiple AP classes every year, or earn straight As. They live in a town that is good at getting people into the upper-middle class, even those who aren’t the most academically inclined.
A national study of intergenerational mobility by economists at Harvard found that nearly half of those who grew up in Woodcrest a generation ago now earn incomes that put them in the top 20% of incomes in the U.S. Nine in 10 graduates of Woodcrest High School go on to four-year colleges right after high school, compared to just 44% of high school graduates in the U.S. who go straight to a four-year college. And attending a more selective college may not matter so much for graduates of Woodcrest High School anyway. A study by other economists compared young adults with similar SAT scores who went to different colleges and found that, for most, their incomes in their 20s didn’t differ. The one exception were Black and Latinx graduates whose parents did not have a college degree, probably because those students were more likely to need the social networks they built in college to get to their first job opportunities.
In other words, nearly all graduates of Woodcrest High School were poised to win at the game of life, whether or not they finished at the top in the college admissions game.
The competition in towns like Woodcrest blinds families to the dearth of opportunities available for children living beyond their town’s borders: the lack of financial resources for parents to pay for private tutoring, music lessons, and sports coaching; the lack of transportation to after-school math classes and club soccer, if those are even available in the first place; and school cultures that reward conformity over speaking your mind. The list goes on.
Most residents of affluent suburbs, Asian and white alike, are also unaware of the history that created these bubbles of opportunity for their children in the first place. They don’t realize that many affluent suburbs were actually established as havens for middle-class whites to escape urban life at a time of urban school integration. Their predecessors enacted municipal laws like requirements that all new homes be single-family and protested proposals for public transportation lines to reach their towns. These historical antecedents mean, ironically, that Asian Americans can now take advantage of the concentration of wealth that was designed to keep African American families, and especially poor and working-class African American families, out of towns like Woodcrest.
So what should kids and parents living in towns like Woodcrest do? For starters, recognize the privileges that you do have, no matter your race or immigration history. And recognize that hard work and talent alone are not enough to make it to an elite college today. That is why selective college campuses are filled by student bodies that are better off financially than young adults overall in this country.
And when tensions arise in your town, try hard to make sense of the perspectives of other families. What are they seeking and is that so different from what you are seeking? What lies at the heart of why you do things differently, or think differently? Is there room for both modes? Usually, there is.
Lastly, find ways to facilitate opportunities not only in your own community but also in those beyond your community’s borders, especially where there are fewer doors open to selective colleges. Doing so will enable you to appreciate a broader range of experiences than the race at the top you might notice first.
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