Diversity and Democracy

Engaging Immigrant-Origin Students in Higher Education

Recent debates over federal immigration reform have highlighted higher education's important role as a potential pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents. Yet immigrant populations in higher education are fundamentally misunderstood, mischaracterized, and understudied. There is simply insufficient research to inform a comprehensive understanding of the experiences and outcomes of immigrant students—including their demography, where and why they enroll in college, and the unique challenges they present for campuses, states, and higher education at large.

The Research on Immigrants in College (RIC) Project addresses the need for a more comprehensive analysis of immigrant students in higher education. The project is a mixed-method study of the relational and academic engagement of immigrant-origin students attending four public institutions in the New York metropolitan area (three two-year colleges and one four-year college). To date, RIC researchers have collected 905 surveys and conducted over one hundred interviews with a racially diverse sample of immigrant-origin students of various nativity and generational statuses. Researchers are triangulating these data with data collected through forty-nine interviews with faculty, administrators, and counselors, as well as through sixty classroom observations. The project also includes a national survey focused on undocumented students' postsecondary experiences, outcomes, and trajectories, which involves collaborating with over three hundred student and community organizations that work with undocumented youth.

Comprehensive Understanding

Past research on immigrant college students has concentrated on the federal DREAM Act and the 1.1 million undocumented children it would affect. Yet another four million children who are themselves US citizens have undocumented parents, and an additional seven million students enrolled in public schools live in households with at least one foreign-born parent with legal status (Passel and Taylor 2010). It is thus necessary to think broadly and comprehensively about the immigrant student population when considering these students' postsecondary trajectories and examining how practices and policies at the state, institutional, and programmatic levels affect their opportunities and outcomes. It is also necessary to examine immigrant students' experiences in different institutional settings, including community colleges (Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, and Suárez-Orozco 2011).

At the heart of the immigration dilemma lie the following realities:

  • Now larger than ever, the immigrant population has been a fast-growing segment of US society and is projected to continue to grow quickly. The foreign-born population doubled in the past two decades to thirty-eight million residents in 2007 (Perez 2010). Children of immigrants are projected to represent as much as 30 percent of the public school population by 2015 (Turner-Johnson and Janosik 2008).
  • The immigrant population is diverse and geographically dispersed. Immigrants come to the United States from all over the world, leaving their countries of origin under different circumstances and arriving under a range of conditions with various assets and challenges.
  • The dreams of immigrant youth are frequently thwarted by barriers and discrimination that conflict with American ideals. As national higher education reforms call for a greater proportion of the population to earn a college degree, immigrants' potential contributions are being overlooked.

In these contexts, higher education can play an important role in preparing immigrant-origin youth to become engaged citizens in a diverse democracy. But to accomplish this, educators will need to understand not only the backgrounds of this heterogeneous population, but also immigrant students' experiences and outcomes related to civic engagement.

Engagement and Education Reform

Students are expected to become increasingly engaged in civic society during college, but research indicates that traditional measures of civic engagement typically do not consider the kinds of activities in which immigrants may participate, such as translating for community members and tutoring (Arnett Jensen and Flanagan 2008). Very little is known about immigrant civic engagement beyond traditional measures of political participation (e.g., voting and campaigning), which may exclude important segments of the immigrant population such as non-naturalized or unauthorized individuals (Waters 2008). Additionally, few studies account for differences among immigrant populations based on individual or background characteristics (Arnett Jensen and Flanagan 2008).

Findings from the RIC Project suggest that immigrant-origin community college students are highly involved in their communities. Around three-quarters of participating first- or second-generation students (76.5 percent) and third-plus-generation students (74.8 percent) reported participating in one or more types of civic engagement. The kinds of civic activities in which they engaged varied significantly (Table 1).

The civic activity in which students most often participated was translation for people in their community. However, participation varied significantly by immigrant status and by race/ethnicity. Students from the third generation and beyond were significantly less likely to participate in translation activities (26.5 percent) than those from the first generation (48.6 percent) or second generation (43.1 percent). Among first- or second-generation immigrant-origin students, Latino/a participants (53.6 percent) were significantly more likely to provide translations for members of their community than their Asian (46.2 percent), white (34.3 percent), or black (28.2 percent) peers.

The percentage of students who reported volunteerism varied across generations and among immigrant-origin students of different racial/ethnic backgrounds. For example, over half of black immigrant-origin participants (55.6 percent) reported volunteerism in places of worship or community centers, compared to 43.6 percent of Latino, 40 percent of Asian, and 35 percent of white participants. Results related to mentoring also varied. First-generation students were significantly less likely to provide mentoring (38.6 percent) than second-generation (45.7 percent) and third-plus-generation (52.4 percent) students. Among immigrant-origin students, black immigrant participants (50.0 percent) were significantly more likely to mentor young people than white (40.9 percent), Latina/o (40.3 percent), and Asian (36.5 percent) respondents.


By gaining a better understanding of immigrant students' civic engagement, higher education can improve its role in building on students' existing commitments. Empirical studies that more accurately represent immigrant populations in higher education can also help colleges and universities recognize and appreciate these students' relevance to institutional, state, and national goals and respond to their unique needs, challenges, and potential.

In responding to the data, colleges and universities can implement and expand on promising practices that can be found across the nation. One example is the Institute of Community and Civic Engagement at De Anza College, which aims to empower students—many of whom are from immigrant-origin backgrounds—to become agents of change in their communities and in local, state, and federal governments. Another promising initiative is the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education, which encourages leaders in immigrant education to raise awareness about immigrant college students, to identify and share best practices, and to demonstrate how immigrant education contributes to the economic and social well-being of local communities, states, and the nation. A number of programs are also assisting English language learners, a growing and increasingly important population.

As the RIC Project continues, we will release additional findings about these and other areas of research. For more information, visit icy.gseis.ucla.edu/projects.

TABLE 1. Civic Participation by Type

  Translation Child or Elderly Care Advice or
for People in
in Place of
School, or
in Cause (e.g., Social or Environmental)
Immigrant Generational Status — Percentage (%)
1st 48.6 35.7 42.1 38.6 33.0 42.6 40.5
2nd 40.4 37.9 41.7 45.7 36.7 46.4 39.0
3rd+ 26.5 39.5 45.5 52.4 42.2 46.6 43.2
Race/Ethnicity among Immigrant-Origin Students (1st or 2nd Generation) — Percentage (%)
Asian 46.2 44.2 40.4 36.5 30.8 40.4 38.5
Black 28.2 45.8 41.9 50.8 40.7 56.5 44.4
Latino/a 53.1 35.4 38.0 40.3 31.6 42.0 37.4
White 34.3 28.6 48.6 42.9 28.6 31.4 31.4


Arnett Jensen, Lene, and Constance A. Flanagan. 2008. "Immigrant Civic Engagement: New Translations." Applied Developmental Science 12 (2): 55–56.

Passel, Jeffrey S., and Paul Taylor. 2010. Unauthorized Immigrants and their U.S.-Born Children. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

Perez, William. 2010. We ARE Americans: Undocumented Students Pursuing the American Dream. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Teranishi, Robert T., Carola Suárez-Orozco, and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco. 2011. "Immigrants in Community College: Toward Greater Knowledge and Awareness." The Future of Children 21 (1): 153–69.

Turner-Johnson, Ane, and Steven Janosik. 2008. "Public Higher Education and Undocumented Students: A Public Policy Morass." College and University Journal 84 (1): 38–41.

Waters, Mary C. 2008. "The Challenges of Studying Political and Civic Incorporation." Applied Developmental Science 12 (2): 105–7.

Robert T. Teranishi is associate professor of higher education at New York University, Margary D. Martin is postdoctoral researcher at New York University, and Carola Suárez-Orozco is professor of education at the University of California–Los Angeles.

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