Education Key to High Attainment Among Immigrants

By Rosa Ramirez

More than 2,000 miles from his native Yucatan, Angel Ku, 22, spends most weekdays looking for new treatments and better diagnostic tools for epilepsy.

Working with researchers at the University of California (San Francisco) Institute for Human Genetics, the molecular biology intern from San Francisco State University is cloning genomes and studying genetic factors. “That’s really exciting,” Ku said.

Ku’s involvement in the research is important both scientifically and symbolically. He’s making an impact in science while, like thousands of other immigrants, his commitment to higher education is a way to boost income, improve his social status, and make an impact in his adopted nation.

Son of a restaurant line cook and housekeeper, his attainment will leapfrog that of his parents, only one of whom completed high school.


A college degree boosts people’s lifetime earnings by as much as 84 percent, according to a 2011 study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

In particular, education among immigrants like Ku and second-generation Americans has led to modest gains in the past decade.

In the 1999-2000 academic year, people either native to another country or born in the United States to at least one foreign-born parent made up 19 percent of all the undergraduates. Seven years later, the percentage jumped to 23 percent of America’s 22.3 million undergraduates, according to a July Education Department study that excluded foreign students with visas.

That the majority of these undergraduate immigrants and second-generation Americans are Hispanic and Asian is not surprising. Today’s immigrants are primarily from Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean, reflecting a shift from the late 1960s when immigrants from Latin America began to outnumber those from Europe.

Given such changes, educators have sought a deeper understanding of those seeking to enroll in undergraduate programs, said Laura Horn, program director of postsecondary education at MPR Associates, the research firm commissioned for the Education Department report. “Demographics are so important because they’re defining the population,” she said.

Data are now being collected for a follow-up study that may reveal a more-nuanced correlation between the length of residency in the U.S. and years it takes immigrants and second-generation Americans to matriculate.

Such analysis could help explain differences between Hispanics and Asians. Enrollment in community colleges for both first- and second-generation Hispanics is stable at 36 percent, while the generational difference for Asians jumps from 38 percent to 55 percent, according the report. Horn says the answers may be found in cultural and family factors.

Hispanic families, she said, may encourage their children to stay closer to home. Asian immigrants may also be better prepared after one generation in the United States to enter a four-year university, Horn said.

John Moder, senior vice president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, agrees. “Hispanics—both families and students—are more close-knit and committed to staying closer to home.” Community colleges are both cheaper and more-conveniently located for those preferring or needing to live at home.

While community colleges provide a common pathway for immigrants to attain higher education, according to the study, there are also risks.

Immigrant students may encounter “administrative hurdles” which can prolong or stall a desired transfer to a four-year university. In California, a severe 2011 funding cut of $502 million to the community college system has led to classes filling quickly in key subjects like math and English, which are prerequisites for transfers.

Further, tuition costs have skyrocketed, often forcing students to stop temporarily or drop out entirely, Moder said.


The benefits of improving higher education rates for immigrants and their U.S.-born children are clear to Jill Casner-Lotto, director of the Community College Consortium. “We’re not just talking about personal success,” she said, “but also looking at the overall contributions to the economy.”

With more education, these groups are more likely to participate in civic organizations. “They become good citizens. They care about their community and they’re contributing to our tax base,” she said.

Still, the immigrant cohort lags the overall population in enrolling in or completing postsecondary education.

Some students encounter these obstacles even before applying for college.

Out of 100 Hispanics, only 63 will graduate from high school, and in some parts of the country, more than 50 percent won’t complete high school, said Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to the president for education on the White House Domestic Policy Council, during an event in Washington last week. “It’s imperative to improve those outcomes,” he said.

“The emphasis should be in—stay in school, most of all,” said Ana Recio Harvey, assistant administrator for Women’s Business Ownership at the Small Business Administration. Parents and educators must then elevate the conversation to help students strategize and get them to “think about what’s going to be in your future.”

Asian Americans are more likely to mirror the overall student population on parent educational attainment—another predictor of college completion. Among Asian immigrants, about 38 percent said their parents did not attend college, compared with 33 percent of the overall population. Those numbers improve for the second-generation Asian Americans; only 28 percent had parents with no postsecondary education.


The barriers for Ku, who is the first in his family to go to college, were numerous. While his father graduated from high school in Mexico, his mother only completed a few years in elementary school, which made it challenging for them help him with Ku’s homework or college applications. But they always supported him and his sister and brother.

Ku also had the guidance of the California woman for whom his mother tended house in largely upscale Marin County. An Iranian immigrant herself, she became a second mother figure to Ku. “She would monitor our studies. She wanted us to do well,” he said, recalling how she would help him and his siblings with school projects.

And there was something else. He grew up watching his parents work long hours to give their children a better life. His mother is proud that Ku is preparing to apply to doctoral programs in some of the nation’s top universities.

“As the first generation to grow up in this country, I can say there’s sometimes friction,” he said of his relationship with his parents. “But I can also appreciate what they’ve done and what they’ve had to go through.” The best gift he can give them, he said, is to finish his education.

This Op-ed appeared on the National Journal on 8/14/12

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