Academic journal article The Future of Children

Higher Education and Children in Immigrant Families

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Higher Education and Children in Immigrant Families

Article excerpt

Like native youths whose parents have no college experience and others from low-income backgrounds, many immigrants and their children face significant barriers to enrolling and succeeding in postsecondary education. Their difficulties are frequently compounded by inadequate information about college opportunities and how to access them, cultural differences, citizenship issues, language barriers, and, too frequently, discrimination. By contrast, other immigrants find the doors to U.S. higher education wide open and surpass native white youth in enrolling and succeeding in postsecondary education. Recent immigrant flows to the United States have, in essence, divided newcomers into two groups, each with highly distinctive characteristics. One is composed of highly skilled professionals primarily from Asia who fill high-demand positions in engineering, the medical professions, and other technical occupations. The other consists of unskilled labor and manual workers primarily from Latin America, the Caribbean, and some Southeast Asian countries. (1) The latter group of immigrants faces obstacles to getting a postsecondary education that are difficult to overcome, while the former does very well in U.S. higher education. Not surprisingly, the differences among immigrants are reflected in the experiences of succeeding generations.

Largely because of the variation in immigrant characteristics, the links between immigrant status and postsecondary educational outcomes in the United States are complex and highly dependent on country of origin. Immigrants' prior education when they enter the United States plays a large role in the subsequent educational attainment of their children. Immigration status itself is not a hindrance. The characteristics of immigrants when they arrive and the subcultures in the United States into which they are absorbed--and in which they raise the second generation--explain most of the variation in overall postsecondary outcomes in the United States. Over generations, even the most traditionally disadvantaged immigrants, such as Mexicans, show some gains in educational attainment, although in terms more of high school completion than of postsecondary success.

For all immigrants and their descendants to succeed in postsecondary education would not only improve prospects for both economic and social mobility for individuals but also confer benefits on society as a whole. With the already sharp rise in demand for skills and education in the U.S. labor market likely to continue, (2) the cost to the nation of failing to minimize the barriers to postsecondary education for less-skilled immigrant groups is high. Especially in view of recent increases in the immigrant population share and the resulting shift in the ethnic and racial composition of the United States, policy makers and educators should focus on increasing immigrants' participation in postsecondary education to ensure the long-run strength of the U.S. economy.

We begin by comparing the educational attainment of different subgroups of immigrants and their children and by comparing their educational attainment with that of U.S. natives. We then examine several competing explanations for the differing educational outcomes of subgroups of immigrants. We distinguish between characteristics of immigrants themselves, such as country of origin, race, and education on the one hand, and structural factors, such as communities, the quality of schools, and legal barriers shaping their experiences on the other. We conclude by assessing the payoff to postsecondary education in U.S. society and examining the implications for all individuals regardless of immigrant origin.

The Educational Attainment of Immigrants and Their Children

Although the educational attainment of immigrants and their children differs from that of nonimmigrants, or natives, in many ways, differences across subgroups of immigrants are frequently even greater than those between "average" immigrants and natives. …

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