James P. Smith, RAND
Introduction: Immigrants often do not come with much, but they do bring their human capital. Since schooling is the most basic index of their skill, how much education migrants had before they arrived, how much they were able to add while in the United States, and how that schooling helped their performances in the American labor market are critical questions in determining their eventual economic success or failure. In part because of this, education may also be crucial in influencing who decides to migrate to the United States.
This influence may be even more direct if migrants come to attend American schools, especially if some of them then stay on as permanent residents. Finally, immigrants are not only members of today’s workforce—they are also parents and grandparents of a major part of the American labor market in the future. Thus, the issue of the size of inter-generational transmission of schooling across immigrant generations is a basic determinant in shaping what the country will look like in the decades ahead.
Immigrants are thought to have significantly less schooling than do native-born Americans; a disparity that it is claimed has been growing over time. Some also see a crisis in American colleges with foreign students first displacing American students and subsequently displacing American workers when they stay on as permanent residents. There is also a common belief that the successful economic assimilation across generations that is part of our folklore for European immigrants in particular may be broken for some of our contemporaneously large migrant ethnic groups. In this paper, I will provide evidence that at a minimum these claims are exaggerated.
This paper is divided into five sections. Section 1 documents the most salient comparative patterns in the schooling of the foreign-born population in the United States, while the second section examines how nativity differences in education have changed over time. Section 3 highlights the considerable education diversity that exists in schooling accomplishments within the immigrant population. This diversity spans time of arrival, ethnic background, legal status, and the reasons for admission to the United States. Section 4 addresses the issue of the impact of foreign students on American schools. The final section focuses on the inter-generational transmission of schooling.