Berkeley as the 'Immigrant University'

November 28, 2007

California has long been a land of immigrants; in 1920, almost a quarter of its residents were foreign-born, though the vast majority of the population had European roots. So it probably won't shock anyone that the state's flagship public university, the University of California at Berkeley, today has a strong immigrant tilt to its undergraduate student body. But even seasoned observers of the state and the university might be surprised by the extent of the immigrant presence at Berkeley, which the authors of a new study characterize as "tremendous and unprecedented": 63 percent of the campus's undergraduate students (excluding international students) were either born outside the United States or have at least one foreign-born parent.

The figure is lower, but still strikingly high, in the University of California system broadly, with 54 percent of undergraduates at all nine campuses being first- or second-generation immigrants (the university's campuses at Irvine, Riverside, Los Angeles and Merced have the largest immigrant populations after Berkeley).

The authors of the study, "The Immigrant University: Assessing the Dynamics of Race, Major and Socioeconomic Characteristics at the University of California," released by Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education, say their analysis is designed to show the need for a more complex method of defining "diversity," "beyond older racial and ethnic paradigms."

What the study -- which is based on the University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey -- reveals is a "startling number and range of students from different ethnic, racial, cultural and economic backgrounds," write John Aubrey Douglass, Heinke Roebken, and Gregg Thomson.

European Americans represent the largest of the eight overarching categories into which the survey divides students at Berkeley, at 30 percent of the undergraduate population (African American, Chicano/Latino, East Indian/Pakistani, Korean, Chinese/Chinese American, Other Asian-Pacific Islander, and "all other" are the others). A significant majority of them are at least third generation Americans (meaning both their parents were born in the United States). But nearly 12 percent are foreign-born and 14.5 percent have at least one parent born outside the U.S., driven partly by recent influxes from the former Soviet states.

Black Americans make up the smallest of the eight categories used, and nearly a third are either foreign born or have at least one parent who is, indicating that "many of the Black students on campus are not the traditional African American population -- the focus of much of the nation's affirmative action efforts -- but students with Caribbean or more recent African roots and with an immigrant culture that places high value on educational attainment," the authors write.

And while the surge in Mexican immigration have moved Chicano/Latinos past European Americans as the largest ethnic group among children and young adults in California, they make up just 9.5 percent of the total undergraduate population at Berkeley, most likely resulting from the dual effects of high poverty and "low levels of educational attainment," the authors write.

Among other highlights of the study:

  • Students with at least one parent (but not both grandparents) born in the United States represent a "significant portion" of the 35 percent of Berkeley undergraduates who hail from families with income over $100,000.
  • Berkeley undergraduates who were born outside the United States are more likely than any other group to have transferred in to the university rather than starting there as freshmen, emphasizing the importance of the state's community college system as a starting point for immigrants, particularly those from low-income backgrounds.
  • The data largely reinforce the notion that more recent immigrant groups are more career-oriented. Students whose either were born in other countries or have at least one foreign-born parent are more likely to major in science, engineering or a professionally oriented major, while third- or fourth-generation Berkeley undergrads appeared more inclined to major in fields like English or political science.

Douglass is a senior research fellow in public policy and higher education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at Berkeley, where Thomson directs the Office of Student Research. The third co-author, Roebken, is assistant professor at the University of Oldenburg, in Germany.

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