Immigrants and Higher Education
With immigration emerging as a hot button issue in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, a timely report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) represents “an effort by scholars not engaged in politics to summon the latest research to address many contentious issues in the increasingly heated immigration debate,” according to the New York Times.
The report, The Integration of Immigrants into American Society, contradicts many of the misperceptions about immigrants currently being circulated. While it’s important to note that immigrants from different regions of origin vary in their experiences and demographic characteristics, the data show that, on average, immigrants to the United States have comparable levels of education to native-born Americans, and that they have better health and commit fewer crimes.
Immigration is a particularly relevant topic in the academy, as immigrants and second-generation Americans represent an increasing share of college students in America. Below, data from the NASEM report are combined with recent demographic data and findings from other organizations and reports to highlight the educational attainment levels of immigrants and second-generation Americans and the impact of higher education on their lives in this country.
Characteristics of Immigrants in America
- Immigrants and their children born in the United States account for about one in four people currently living in the United States.
- Forty-six percent of immigrants are naturalized US citizens, and another 36 percent are permanent legal residents.
- The Migration Policy Institute (MSP) calculates that more than two million immigrants and second-generation Americans are enrolled full-time in US colleges, representing almost 20 percent of all US college students, and 24 percent of community college students, according to the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education.
- Almost a third of foreign-born individuals living in the United States have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the MSP—a rate comparable to that of native-born Americans.
- The MSP also finds that foreign-born residents of the United States are more likely to have a doctorate or professional degree than native-born Americans (15 percent vs. 10 percent).
- All immigrant groups, including those whose members typically arrive in the United States with low levels of education, show strong intergenerational progress on educational attainment, and second-generation Americans from most groups meet or exceed the education levels attained by the children of native-born Americans.
- The children of college-educated immigrants tend to perform exceptionally well in the higher education, achieving graduate degrees and occupying top-tier occupations at higher rates than children of native-born Americans.
Education and Civic Participation
- Education is an increasingly important factor affecting which immigrants become naturalized US citizens: the chance of an immigrant with less than a high school diploma becoming a citizen was less than 31 percent in 2000—down from a 45 percent chance in 1970.
- Citizenship is a strong predictor for civic participation, but educational attainment is itself the single strongest predictor, according to the Latino Civic Health Index, so education is crucial for immigrants to become active participants in US civic life.
- Despite the important role of education in promoting naturalization and civic participation, the United States Office of Citizenship spends less on educational materials and programs for immigrants than the state of Illinois spends, and only a small fraction of what Canada spends, even though Canada receives far fewer immigrants.
Did You Know?
- Foreign-born adults in America hold bachelor’s degrees at approximately the same rate as native-born adults, and are more likely to have advanced degrees.
- The children of immigrants, on average, attain or surpass the education levels of children of native-born Americans—even the children of immigrants with low levels of education
- Educational attainment is the single strongest predictor of civic participation in immigrant communities.
 The data represented here are drawn from The Integration of Immigrants into American Society unless attributed otherwise.