It’s hard to imagine that two wildly successful, modern-life phenomena would have anything less in common than Uber, the popular ride-sharing service, and The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, Amy Chua’s best-selling book that defined the stereotype of Asian American mothers willing to browbeat their children into academic success.
Yet a new study and a follow-up investigative report have found that The Princeton Review, the venerable college-prep service, is using an Uber-like zip code–based pricing system for its online tutoring courses. But Asian American families, who tend to outpace whites as well as other minorities when it comes to scholastic achievement, are nearly twice as likely as whites to be charged top dollar for the service—a disturbing conclusion that smacks of discrimination predicated on the education-at-all-costs tiger-mom stereotype.
In a statement given to ProPublica, the investigative website, the tutoring service insists its pricing is based solely on the cost of doing business: The more expensive the location, the higher the overhead for its business, a cost it, like most businesses, passes on to the consumer. “This is an ubiquitous practice across all commerce, both online and offline,” reads the statement.
The study and report confirm the differential: Some zip codes entered into the company’s website are offered The Princeton Review’s Premier course for $8,400, but other zips get the same course for as little as $6,600. The tutoring service says the gap is because of income; the zip codes with higher prices tend to have an outsize number of financial services headquarters and other businesses that drive up The Princeton Review’s prices.
At the same time, the data show that a disproportionate number of those zip codes have a high percentage of Asian residents. The pricing gap for Princeton Review courses remains even for Asians in lower-income neighborhoods.
“Consider a zip code in Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens, New York. Asians make up 70.5 percent of the population in this zip code,” ProPublica wrote. “According to the U.S. Census, the median household income in the zip code, $41,884, is lower than most, yet The Princeton Review customers there are quoted the highest price.”
Further, “the analysis showed that higher income areas are twice as likely to receive higher prices than the general population,” ProPublica reports. “For example, wealthy suburbs of Washington D.C. are charged higher prices. But that isn’t always the case: Residents of affluent neighborhoods in Dallas are charged the lowest price, $6,600.”
Meanwhile, Asian families were 1.8 times as likely to get the pricier quote, even without six-figure incomes, ProPublica reports, noting that residents of working-class Westminster, California—which is 47.5 percent Asian—were charged the next-highest price for the tutoring service. It’s what ProPublica calls “the Tiger Mom tax.”
It’s “right on the money” that The Princeton Review’s pricing structure “is probably related to the Tiger Mom perception of Asian Americans,” C.N. Le, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said in an email interview. Le, the director of the university’s Asian American Studies Certificate Program, takes The Princeton Review’s pricing structure explanation—business costs—with a grain of salt.
The Princeton Review “likely thinks that (1) everybody who lives in NYC must be wealthy or (2) even if they’re not wealthy, Asian Americans in particular are willing to pay more money to ensure the highest academic success for their children,” he wrote.
Nevertheless, “I don’t necessarily think PR is being ‘racist’ per se, but I do think that they are relying on broad generalizations and probably some stereotypes about Asian Americans as the ‘model minority’ who value academic success above and beyond everything else,” Le wrote.
“It’s certainly true that academic success is important to many Asian American families, and families from all racial/ethnic backgrounds,” wrote Le. “But since we live in [a] capitalist society, PR can get away with charging more to Asian Americans because of the intersection of the ‘free market’ with generalized cultural perceptions [that] have some basis in truth.”
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