Immigrants and Their Educational Attainment: Some
Facts and Findings. ERIC Digest.
by Schwartz, Wendy
This digest reviews several reports about the educational experience
and expectations of recent immigrants to the United States, and about the
overall role of immigrants in the country. Its purpose is to dispel some
myths about the impact of immigrants on American society and to provide
information that can be considered in efforts to increase immigrants' educational
In general, immigrant youth and parents have higher educational aspirations
than do natives of the same racial/ethnic group. Individual and family
factors associated with high school graduation, college-going, and college
continuity are generally the same for immigrants and natives, as well as
across racial/ethnic groups. Immigrant students most likely to attend college
have parents with higher income and education levels, and higher educational
expectations for their children. Low family income has a disproportionally
negative effect on college continuity for immigrants.
According to the 1990 Census:
*There were more than 2.3 million immigrant youth in U.S. schools and
colleges--about 5% of all students.
*The percentage of immigrant children enrolling in U.S. primary and
middle schools was nearly equal to that of the native born--71% to 74%,
respectively, before age eight; and 94% to 96%, respectively, after age
eight. Immigrant and native-born youth attended high school at the rates
of 87% and 93% respectively.
*Immigrant youth were twice as likely as natives to live in families
with an income in the lowest quartile and to have parents with less than
12 years of schooling. Asian and white immigrants, like their native-born
ethnic counterparts, were least likely to live in such families. Black
youth--both immigrant and native-born--were significantly more likely than
Asians and whites to live in low-income families.
HIGH SCHOOL EXPERIENCE
*Immigrant high school students are as likely as natives to graduate
from high school within four years of their sophomore year.
*Immigrant youth, especially Hispanics, who enter the U.S. after the
age of 15 are less likely to enter the school system or to remain until
high school graduation than are immigrants who arrive when younger.
*Immigrants are more likely than native-born youth to make choices,
beginning early in school, consistent with eventual college-going, regardless
of race or ethnicity. They follow an academic track, take advanced courses
in mathematics and science, take the SAT or ACT, and work hard to achieve
*Variations among immigrant ethnic groups generally parallel variations
among native-born groups: Asian immigrants perform better on indicators
of college preparation, followed by white and black immigrants.
*Overall, immigrants are more likely than natives to enroll in postsecondary
education, attend college, and stay continuously through four years of
college. Asian immigrants are more likely to go continuously to college
than any other racial/ethnic immigrant group.
*The shorter the time an immigrant youth has been in the U.S., the lower
are his/her college-going and continuing rates.
*Urban immigrants are more likely to enroll in college than those in
*Immigrant college-going is positively affected by a mother working
outside the home, and negatively affected by the presence of three or more
*Slightly more than 1.1 million immigrants arrive in the U.S. annually.
Almost half of them are female.
*About 700,000 individuals enter as lawful permanent residents.
*100,000-150,000 enter legally as refugees or asylees--individuals seeking
asylum because they fear persecution in their homeland because of their
political views, national origin, membership in a social group, religion,
or race. Refugees apply for protection before coming to the U.S.; asylees
apply after arriving. 300,000 enter without legal status (called undocumented
*In 1993, the 10 countries (in descending order) from which the U.S.
received the most legal immigrants were: Mexico, Mainland China, the Philippines,
Vietnam, the former Soviet Union, the Dominican Republic, India, Poland,
El Salvador, and the United Kingdom. The 10 countries from which the U.S.
received the most refugees were: the former Soviet Union, Vietnam, Haiti,
Laos, Somalia, Iraq, Cuba, Iran, Ethiopia, and Liberia.
*Undocumented immigrants constitute about 1% of the total U.S. population
and 13% of the foreign-born population. Most enter the country legally
with temporary visas and become illegal when they stay. In 1993 there were
about 3.8 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
*Increasingly, immigrants are people of color. In 1992 the breakdown
was: 44% from Latin America and the Caribbean, 37% from Asia, and 15% from
*In the 1980s, three-quarters of all immigrants settled in six states:
California, New York, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and Illinois..
*The vast majority of immigrants settle in urban areas. In 1990, 93%
lived in cities.
ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNING
*Approximately 25% of immigrants come from countries where English is
the dominant or official language. Another 20% come from Spanish-speaking
countries. Nearly 50% coming from other non-English dominant countries
already speak English well upon arriving.
*There is a trend towards monolingual English speaking among the children
of immigrants. Previously it took three generations for a family to lose
its native tongue.
*English-as-a-Second-Language classes serve 1.8 immigrants annually,
but the demand for them far outstrips their availability.
INCOME AND PAYMENT OF TAXES
*In 1989, immigrants earned a total of $285 billion, or 8% of all income
earned in the nation. This amount equals the immigrant share of the total
*Immigration does not reduce the overall job availability or depress
wages. More specifically, it has little negative impact for African American
workers in the aggregate, although immigrants may reduce opportunities
of low-skilled workers in certain geographical areas.
*Annually, immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits
such as education and public assistance: $70.3 billion as compared with
*Undocumented immigrants pay taxes of $7 billion annually because their
paychecks are subject to income tax and Social Security deductions. They
are not eligible for benefits from most public programs, however.
*Legal immigrants' Social Security payments help keep the Social Security
system solvent, since they tend to be young and have years of work ahead
of them. However, the percentage of native-born elderly, who collect Social
Security rather than contribute to it, is increasing.
USE OF PUBLIC SERVICES
*The Federal, state, and local costs of educating immigrant youth is
about $11.5 billion. For comparison, during the 1992-93 school year, the
cost of educating all children was $226 billion.
*Immigrants cannot enter the United States. legally without proving
that they are self-sufficient and unlikely to need public assistance.
*Refugees, who comprise 10% of the immigrant population and who frequently
arrive with nothing, are the most likely to require benefits: 15% receive
*Undocumented immigrants are eligible for only emergency medical care
under Medicaid, and nutrition benefits. Despite eligibility for free hospital
care, many pay for it themselves or have private health insurance, and
thus use services less than the general population.
*About 11% of elderly immigrants (800,000 individuals) receive Supplemental
Security Income, an assistance program for disabled and elderly people.
More than three-quarters of them have no other source of income because
they are ineligible for Social Security.
*In the 1980s, 2% of working-age immigrants, compared with 3.7% of native-born
Americans of the same age, received welfare.
The source of the general information about immigrants presented here
is a compilation of Fact Sheets published by the National Immigration Forum
(1994). The sheets themselves cite data from a variety of sources, such
as the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and analyses by a range
of immigration research organizations.
The information on the education of immigrants is drawn from a RAND
analysis of data (Vernez & Abrahamse, 1996) from High School and Beyond
(HSB), a national sample of more than 21,000 tenth and twelfth graders
who were first interviewed in 1980 and then followed over a six-year period
to determine their educational progress. The RAND report also cites U.S.
Census of Population and Housing data and several smaller studies of the
educational performance of immigrants and other minorities. It should be
noted that the applicability of findings based on HSB data, which comprise
information about students who attended high school more than 15 years
ago, to the current educational experiences of immigrants is limited for
several reasons: the number of immigrants in the nation's schools has doubled
since 1980, immigrant students come from increasingly diverse cultural
and language backgrounds, and the ability of schools and colleges "to absorb
them has arguably deteriorated" (p. xiii). However, newer data on the education
of immigrants of equal validity and scope is not yet available for analysis.
National Immigration Forum. (1994). A guide to immigration facts and
figures. Washington, DC: Author.
Vernez, G., & Abrahamse, A. (1996). How immigrants fare in U.S.
education. Santa Monica: RAND.