Indian Americans and Scripps National Spelling Bee: Celebrating the Successes of Indian Americans in the United States

Earlier in May, 8 students were named co-champions of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, producing the largest winning pool in history. Notably, 7 of the 8 winners this year were from Indian American immigrant families. The overwhelming success of Indian Americans at the Spelling Bee inspired us to look more closely at the history of Spelling Bee winners from immigrant backgrounds over the past 20 years. What we found was an exceptional trend: 84 percent, or 26 out of 31 of the most recent winners, including those from years with multiple champions, came from Indian American immigrant families. Even more impressive, at least one Indian American student has won the Bee every year since 2008 (including one of NAE’s very own interns, Sukanya Roy). [1]

This phenomenon, however, is part of a much bigger trend. Research shows that Indian American immigrants, and South Asian and Asian immigrants more generally, make their children’s education a high priority from an early age. Indian immigrants have formed networks where information about academic enrichment and advancement activities is shared, helping to create a generation of young Indian American intellectuals. Researchers have also found that excelling in academic competitions bring a sense of great pride and prestige to Indian American immigrant families. The dominance of Indian Americans at the Scripps National Spelling Bee and other academic competitions, such as the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and the Google Science Fair is just one result of this emphasis on education.

Another result of this emphasis on education—a highly skilled and highly productive workforce—is one sure to reap benefits for the U.S. economy as more young Indian Americans and Indian immigrants join the labor force. Here, the trajectories of some of the Bee’s past winners provide prime examples of their potential. Nupur Lala, the 1999 winner, has gone on to not only finish a Master’s in Cancer Biology, but to also enroll in the University of Texas Medical School. Anurag Kashyap, the 2005 winner, later won the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament in 2008, going on to study biological sciences at MIT, eventually earning a master’s degree in engineering.

            NAE’s analysis of 2017 American Community Survey data further confirms and reflects these trends among Indian immigrants in the United States. According to a forthcoming NAE report on the broader contributions and characteristics of Asian American and Pacific Islander Americans, 79.5 percent of immigrants from India in 2017 held a bachelor’s degree or higher. For comparison, this is significantly more than the 32.2 percent of U.S.-born Americans who held a bachelor’s degree or higher. This strikingly high level of educational attainment not only means that Indian Americans are helping fill chronic gaps in healthcare for surgeons and physicians, but also in high-tech industries that require engineers and research scientists. These high-skilled jobs allow Indian Americans to make outsized economic contributions to the U.S. economy. Our analysis shows that foreign-born Indian Americans earned a total of $162.6 billion in 2017 alone. These earnings allowed them to pay more nearly $50 billion in taxes, money to fund schools, infrastructure, and public safety services across the country. It also left with them with enough money, $112.6 billion to be exact, to spend at U.S. businesses, buy homes, and invest locally.

            It is clear that the Indian immigrant community’s values and emphasis on education has the potential to bring enormous gains to the U.S. economy. Like all immigrants, they bring a diversity of experience, tradition, and skill to the United States, making it all the more crucial for both national and local policymakers to craft policies that recognize and harness their full potential for the benefit of all Americans.

[1] A list of past winners can be found here

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