Generational Improvements

Study documents educational progress for children of immigrants, and gaps among immigrant groups.
September 12, 2005

The children of recent immigrants are much more likely to earn college degrees than are their parents, and successive generations are likely to do even better. But Mexican American immigrants -- while still showing significant progress from generation to generation -- lag behind other groups, according to a new report based on data from California.

The report is significant because California, the nation's most populous state, has a population in which more than half of people aged 13 through 24 have at least one foreign-born parent. And much data that educators have used historically to compare the progress of differing groups has focused on race and ethnicity, not family immigration history. The study was conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California.

The report makes a series of comparisons of immigrants and their offspring, and then analyzes the reasons for differences among groups. Some groups -- particularly Asians -- are likely to have college degrees in the immigrant generation, as the following data for immigrant families with adult children indicate.

Educational Attainment of Immigrant Parents and Their Children

Group Less Than High School Diploma High School Diploma Some College College Graduate
  • Immigrant parents
38% 30% 16% 15%
  • Second generation
10% 27% 33% 30%
Mexican origin        
  • Immigrant parents
75% 15%   7%   3%
  • Second generation
14% 36% 38% 12%
Central American        
  • Immigrant parents
45% 33% 11% 11%
  • Second generation
10% 32% 43% 15%
Southeast Asian        
  • Immigrant parents
29% 22% 11% 37%
  • Second generation
  2% 25% 21% 52%
Other Asian        
  • Immigrant parents
16% 26% 18% 41%
  • Second generation
  1% 10% 23% 66%
  • Immigrant parents
25% 38% 20% 17%
  • Second generation
  8% 26% 33% 34%

While the sample sizes for subsequent generations are smaller, similar patterns were found, with each succeeding generation doing better -- and with gaps remaining among groups, particularly between Mexican Americans and other groups.

The report warns that "the stakes are high" for California because 13 percent of youth in the state are immigrants from Mexico themselves and another 21 percent are U.S.-born Mexican Americans.

On problem the report identifies is that many Mexican young people immigrate to the United States as teenagers who may not have received a good education in Mexico or be able to catch up with their counterparts in American high schools, if they even enroll there.

The report also notes the importance of community colleges for those Mexican Americans who enroll in college. Almost 80 percent of Latinos who enroll in California colleges do so at two-year institutions, the report says, making it essential to raise transfer rates to four-year institutions if educators are committed to increasing the number of Latino college graduates.


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