An extraordinary demographic shift is sweeping through US university campuses as immigrants and children of immigrants become an ever-larger share of student bodies, with implications for the future of the country’s workforce, higher education and efforts to reduce racial and economic inequality.
A new study released Thursday found that more than 5.3 million students, or nearly 30% of all students enrolled in colleges and universities in 2018, hailed from immigrant families, up from 20% in 2000. The population of so-called immigrant-origin students grew much more than that of US-born students of parents also born in the United States, accounting for 58% of the increase in the total number of students in higher education during that period.
These students, most of them nonwhite, are the offspring of Indians who came to study in the United States and stayed; the children of Latin Americans who crossed the border for blue-collar jobs; and some whose families fled civil wars around the world as refugees.
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“In higher education, we are producing and training the future workforce. That future workforce has more students from immigrant families than previously understood,” said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a group of college and university officials that commissioned the study from the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
Studies have shown that college graduates earn $1 million more over their lifetime than those with a high school degree. They also have better health outcomes, are more civically engaged and have an overall better quality of life.
“Accessing higher education enables immigrant students to achieve their dreams, and it becomes an economic and social mobility generator, benefiting themselves, their children and the country,” said Feldblum, a former dean of Pomona College in California.
In California, immigrants or children of immigrants accounted for about half of enrolled students in 2018. In eight states — Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Washington — they represented 30% to 40% of the student body. And in 32 states, at least 20,000 students from immigrant families were pursuing degrees, from associate and bachelor’s degrees to master’s and doctoral degrees.
An overwhelming majority of immigrant-origin students are US citizens or legal residents. But they are likely to face barriers and limits on resources that many other students do not.
“Going into the college process, these students themselves or their families may not have a lot of knowledge about navigating college applications and the financial aid process,” said Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at Migration Policy Institute and the lead author of the report.
Once immigrant-origin students are in school, their dropout rates tend to be higher because many come from poor households.
“They juggle multiple responsibilities, which makes it more challenging for them to stay in school and complete their degrees on time,” Batalova said. “If there is a health or family emergency, they lack a safety net to fall back on. That interferes with attending classes and completing assignments.”
Immigrants and US-born children of immigrants represented 85% of all Asian American and Pacific Islander students and 63% of Latino students in 2018. About one-quarter of Black students were from immigrant families.
As their numbers swell, the students from immigrant families will only become more important to the long-term financial health of US colleges and universities.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic threw the operation of colleges and universities into disarray, there was concern about future enrollment amid the country’s falling fertility rate and declining international student enrollment. The United States has faced intensified competition for international students from countries like Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.
“We will see a shrinking domestic pool of prospective college students in the 2020s,” said Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College who studies how changing demographics affect the market for higher education. “Immigrants, their children and grandchildren are the future of higher ed,” he said.
Public universities provide the main gateway to higher education for the immigrant-origin students. In 2018, 83% were enrolled in public institutions compared with 17% in private schools, according to the study.
International students who come to the United States on visas accounted for 5.5% of all college and university students in the 2018-19 academic year.
Unlike international students, who typically return to their home countries after completing their studies, children from immigrant families have been raised in the United States and intend to remain in the country.
“I’m definitely staying here. The reason my parents came from India in the first place was for the opportunities,” said Simran Sethi, 19, who grew up in Dallas and is a sophomore studying engineering at Texas A&M. “A future in America is what I am looking forward to.”
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