Examining Intergenerational Differences in Educational Performance of Immigrant Students

Over the course of the past half-century, the United States has seen the largest wave of immigration since the Age of Mass Migration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Beginning in 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act allowed for a significant increase in the flow of immigrants into the United States. In the past three decades alone, more than one million immigrants have entered the country each year, most of whom travel from Asia and Latin America. Today, immigrants and their American-born children make up approximately 26 percent of the overall U.S. population. The educational performance of young immigrants is therefore not only pivotal to their individual success, but also to the economic prosperity of the United States.

Despite the importance of educational outcomes for immigrant students, research on the educational attainment of immigrants across generations is lacking. More specifically, we know very little about the school performance of first-, second- and third-generation immigrants–relative to one another–because studies often fail to control for the effects of peers, family, and school quality. This is partially due to the inadequacies of available data. For example, surveys often collect information from a small sample of individuals, which makes it difficult to extrapolate findings to the broader population of all immigrant students. The surveys used also typically request limited information on the schools the respondents attend, their disciplinary records, and their academic outcomes—including test scores, high school graduation, and advanced course selection, which all measure college readiness. Although such information can be found in large administrative data sets, these sets generally still lack other relevant details, such as English proficiency and family immigration history.

To overcome these limitations, the authors of a recent study, Umut Özek and David Figlio, matched student records with birth certificate data for all children born between 1992 and 2002 in the state of Florida. This unique and exceptionally rich data set links educational outcomes and schooling conditions to family characteristics, which provides the opportunity to study important data on hundreds of thousands of immigrant children throughout the course of their entire education.

Özek and Figlio focus on Hispanic and Asian immigrants since they constitute the majority of the foreign-born population in Florida. After controlling for age, gender, school quality, income, language, and family background including maternal education level, the authors find that first-generation immigrants systematically outperform second-generation immigrants. In turn, second-generation immigrants outperform third-generation immigrants.

Özek and Figlio found that foreign-born Hispanic students who entered the U.S. school system before the third grade score 0.2 standard deviations below third-generation white students in eighth grade reading and math. This gap increases to 0.28 standard deviations for second-generation Hispanic students and further increases to 0.3 standard deviations for third-generation Hispanic students. In addition, first-generation students are less likely to be suspended from school, are likely to have better attendance records, and are significantly more likely to graduate from high school. These findings are somewhat counterintuitive, as past evidence has shown that immigrants accumulate wealth and education across generations and that later generations have significantly stronger English skills than recent immigrants.

The researchers suggest that waning educational aspirations may contribute to the pattern of diminishing educational outcomes in later generations, despite the linguistic and financial advantages immigrant families accumulate across generations. After holding the level of academic performance in the prior year constant, they find that recent immigrants are more likely to select advanced high school courses or attend high-performing middle schools. The systematic “undershooting” of more established immigrants and the resulting lack of college readiness could be a sign of low academic ambitions among second- and third-generation immigrants relative to first-generation immigrants. The researchers suggest that this difference in ambition could be the cause of consistently deteriorating schooling outcomes across successive generations.

The authors’ findings have interesting policy implications relevant to the current political debate on immigration. The findings suggest that new immigrants, despite the considerable resources they require to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers, quickly match and even exceed the performance of their American-born peers of the same ethnicity. Today, one in four students in American schools is an immigrant or a child of immigrants. This fraction is expected to increase to one in three by 2050. As we transition toward a more technology-intensive economy with increasing demand for high-skill labor, improving the educational outcomes of immigrants is critical to both their personal welfare and the American economy. Yet, the specific causes of declining cross-generational school performance remain unknown. Further research is needed in order to better understand those causes and to identify policies that could help maintain academic ambitions across generations.

Article source: Özek, Umut, and David N. Figlio. “Cross-generational Differences in Educational Outcomes in the Second Great Wave of Immigration.” National Bureau of Economic Research (2016).

Featured photo: cc/(monkeybusinessimages, photo ID: 544655644, from iStock by Getty Images)

Xiner Xu
Xiner Xu is a staff writer for Child & Family. She is interested in behavioral economics, immigration policy, and post-secondary education in a comparative international context.

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