U.S. Immigrant Educational Achievement

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U.S. Immigrant Educational Achievement


By: Luke J. Larsen, U.S. Census Bureau

Date: August 2003

Source: Adapted by Thomson Gale from data from: Larsen, Luke J. The Foreign-Born Population in the U.S.: 2003. U.S. Census Bureau, August 2003.

About the Author: Luke J. Larsen is a researcher in the U.S. Census Bureau, part of the United States Department of Commerce.


Census charts show that in 2003 there were considerable differences between the overall levels of educational attainment of the native-born and foreign-born populations of the United States, and also between different groups within the foreign-born population. In particular, the lower levels of educational attainment among the foreign-born are accounted for almost entirely by lower levels of education among Latin American immigrants.

Overall, only sixty-seven percent of foreign born Americans, compared with 87.5 percent of the native born, had graduated from high-school. The percentage that had graduated from high school fell to forty-nine percent for those born in Latin American countries and, within this group, only thirty-eight percent of those born in Central America were high school graduates. In contrast, people who had been born in Asian countries or in other parts of the world had similar levels of educational attainment to the native-born population.

The data is taken from the Current Population Survey, a monthly sample survey of around fifty thousand U.S. households, conducted by the Bureau of the Census. Its main purpose is to collect employment-related data to feed into labor market policies, but the survey also generates information on the demographic characteristics of the U.S. population, including nativity and educational attainment levels.

The composition of the foreign-born population by levels of educational attainment largely reflects the immigration policies that have determined patterns of entry to the United States over the past few decades. In general, recent admissions policies have given priority to immigrants coming to the U.S. for the purpose of reunification with family members who are already U.S. citizens. To a slightly lesser extent, professionals and other high-skilled workers have been allowed to enter the U.S. to take up employment. As a result, a pattern has developed in which a high proportion of immigrants from Asian countries have come to the United States as highly skilled workers, while those from Mexico and other parts of Central and Latin America have come on family reunification visas and have generally had low levels of educational attainment.

However, these broad generalizations conceal the significant differences between immigrant groups from different regions of the world. For example, although many Asian immigrants are highly educated, the nationals of some Asian countries such as Cambodia and Laos have very low levels of education, on average. Similarly, Cubans and South American immigrants tend to be more highly educated than Mexican immigrants.



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There have been particularly high levels of immigration to the United States over the last few decades, and the foreign-born now account for around twelve percent of the population. As a result, immigrant characteristics have an increasingly important impact on the overall educational distribution and labor market profile of the U.S. population. This is particularly true in states that have a disproportionately large immigrant population, such as California.

The majority of recent immigrants to the United States in recent years, both legal and undocumented, have been from Mexico, one of the countries whose immigrants have particularly low levels of educational attainment. Those with few qualifications are most likely to be employed in low-skilled jobs, receive lower wages and may claim more welfare benefits. This potentially has adverse consequences for the country in terms of overall skill levels, as well as other factors such as education and welfare costs.

Research has shown that family characteristics, including educational attainment, tend to be passed onto subsequent generations due to factors such as the language spoken at home and cultural views about the importance of education. This implies that there will be a general tendency for the American-born children of immigrants to attain similar levels of education to their parents and reinforce current labor market patterns, unless there are policy interventions such as special educational programs targeted at the children of immigrant families.

Concern about rising levels of legal and undocumented migration to the U.S. in the early twenty-first century has led to a growing demand for immigration reform. This provides an opportunity to take account of the labor market impacts of recent immigration patterns, and perhaps to incorporate a greater focus on educational attainment and skill levels within future admissions policies.



Bosworth, Barry, Susan M. Collins, and Nora Claudia Lustig. Coming Together? Mexico-United States Relations. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1997.

Krop, Richard A., Peter C. Rydell, and Georges Vernez. Closing the Education Gap: Benefits and Costs. Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand, 1999.


Hernandez, Donald J. "Demographic Change and the Life Circumstances of Immigrant Families." The Future of Children 14 (2004).

Kao, Grace and Jennifer S. Thompson. "Racial and Ethnic Stratification in Educational Achievement and Attainment." Annual Review of Sociology 29 (2003).

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U.S. Immigrant Educational Achievement