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immigrants and education in the US
In this 2017 photo, students present their history projects at a New York City high school for recent immigrants and refugees. A new study finds that most immigrant groups meet or surpass average U.S. education levels by the second generation — the first generation of children to be born in this country. Credit: Meredith Kolodner

In 2004, the late Harvard political science professor Sam Huntington made the argument that recent immigrants, particularly Hispanics, weren’t assimilating well into American society. He worried that the descendants of present-day immigrants wouldn’t follow the same upwardly mobile trajectory as the descendants of earlier arrivals from Europe. Fears like these often stoke anti-immigrant sentiments, especially during a time when the percentage of immigrants approaches 14 percent of the U.S. population, according to the most recent data. But a new study indicates that the majority of present-day immigrants and their children may be making real progress toward achieving their American dreams.

The key appears to be education because higher educational attainment is associated with economic success, social status, better health, family stability and life opportunities. Generally speaking, the more years in school and the more degrees earned, the better.

Two economists from the University of Colorado and the University of Texas at Austin studied data from a monthly survey conducted by the Census Department and the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2003 through 2016 and found that U.S. immigrants are actually relatively well-educated. In a working paper distributed this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, they documented that most immigrant groups either arrived with high levels of education or their U.S. born children quickly met or exceeded the schooling level of the typical American. A big exception to this pattern are immigrants from Mexico, who number more than 11.5 million and are the largest foreign-born population in the U.S.  (Click here for a table of years of education by national or regional origin.)

“Overall, there’s not really a problem with immigrant integration,” said Stephen Trejo, one of the co-authors and an economics professor at the University of Texas. “By the second generation, the children of immigrants have more education than a typical American. The only groups that haven’t caught up are a handful of Hispanic groups and they’re sizeable. But it’s not all Hispanic groups.”

Source: Data from Table 1 of Socioeconomic Integration of U.S. Immigrant Groups over the Long Term: The Second Generation and Beyond, a March 2018 working paper by Brian Duncan and Stephen J. Trejo. Click on any bar to see exact years of education.

For example, male immigrants from Africa arrived with 14.4 years of education, on average, which is the equivalent of a high school diploma plus nearly two and a half years of college. That exceeds the 13.8 years of schooling of the average non-Hispanic white man in the United States. (First-generation African females arrived with 13.6 years of education.)

European males coming to the U.S. had a tad more education than the Africans with 14.5 years of schooling. However, in the second generation, African immigrants of both genders surpassed the Europeans. U.S.-born males with at least one African-born parent had 14.7 years of schooling; females had 15 years.

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Other groups tend to arrive with much less education but leap ahead. Haitians, for example, came to the U.S. with roughly 12.8 years of school. But their U.S.-born children stay in school for 14.1 years (males) and 14.8 years (females). Jamaicans follow a similar pattern.

Indian immigrants start with the most education, averaging 16.3 years for men and 16 years for women. That indicates not only a four-year bachelor’s degree but graduate degrees as well. India is now the leading country of origin for new immigrants, followed by China. (Mexicans have dropped to third place on an annual basis, but because of many years of high immigration, Mexicans still account for the largest group of foreign-born people in the U.S. with 11.6 million or 26 percent of all U.S. immigrants, according to the Migration Policy Institute.)

Chinese immigrants also tend to come well-educated, arriving with 14.9 years of school for men on average. Other Asian immigrants, including Filipinos, also arrive well-educated. Vietnamese follow the Haitian pattern, arriving less educated but surpassing the average American quickly with the second generation.

Hispanic immigrants are a more complicated story. Those arriving from South America and Cuba follow the same catch-up pattern, arriving somewhat under-educated, but quickly exceeding average U.S. education levels with the first generation born in this country. Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are among the leading countries of origin.

By contrast, immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic don’t fare as well. Nor do Puerto Ricans who move to the U.S. mainland. (Puerto Ricans, of course, are U.S. citizens, but were included in this study of immigrants’ educational attainment.)

First-generation Mexicans arrive the least educated of all immigrant groups with fewer than 10 years of school, on average. That’s roughly the equivalent of only a ninth-grade education. The second generation (the first born in the U.S.) jumps to 12.7 and 12.9 years of schooling for males and females, respectively. That’s a giant educational leap, but still well behind the U.S. average. More troubling is that data show Mexican-Americans don’t seem to take their education further in subsequent generations. Educational progress stalls.

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But the true picture of educational attainment by descendants of Mexican immigrants may be more complex. Based on his analysis of related data, Trejo suspects that as many as a third of Mexican immigrants in the third generation no longer identify as Hispanic because of intermarriage. And descendants of intermarried families tend to be more educated, Trejo says.

Trejo’s own mixed ancestry inspired him to pursue this topic. His father was born in America to low-skilled Mexican immigrant parents. Trejo’s father was the first in his family to graduate from college. He married a Jewish-American woman of European heritage. Their son earned a Ph.D., which ought to push the Mexican-American education figures upwards. But Trejo says that only two-thirds of people in his position self-identify as Hispanic on the survey forms. Trejo calls the third who don’t examples of “ethnic attrition.”

Trejo hasn’t yet been able to calculate how much this “ethnic attrition” is understating the progress of Mexican-Americans.  In a separate dataset, Trejo found that it could amount to a half year of education. If correct, it might mean that Mexican-Americans are still progressing and will catch up slowly. It could take four or five generations — a generation longer than the low-skilled Irish and Italian immigrants took for full assimilation in the 20th century.

Puerto Rico is another puzzle.  Puerto Ricans come to the mainland with much higher levels of education than Mexican immigrants but they don’t seem to progress much once settled here.  For example, Puerto Rican men arrive with 12.2 years of education. But two generations later, the typical American man of Puerto Rican descent had only 13.2 years of education, well below the average for non-Hispanic whites.

Even if “ethnic attrition” explains some of the educational stagnation for Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, they’re still not assimilating at the same pace as other ethnic groups. “Closing the remaining educational gap between Hispanics and other Americans should be a key component of any effort to hasten such integration,” Trejo concluded.

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