Higher Ed's Other Immigrants

Undocumented immigrant students get all the political attention, but a new study explores how first- and second-generation Americans fare in college.

July 18, 2012

President Obama's announcement last month of a new policy that would allow most students who lack the documentation to reside legally in the United States to avoid deportation was the latest high-profile development regarding what is by most accounts a very small segment of the college population.

The political and cultural flashpoints over illegal immigration tend to distract attention from the much larger number of immigrant students who study on American college campuses. A study released Tuesday by the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics aims to remedy that a bit, mining longitudinal student databases to examine the higher education experiences of first- and second-generation college students.

The study, "New Americans in Postsecondary Education: A Profile of Immigrant and Second-Generation American Undergraduates," is drawn from the 2007-8 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. It compares subgroups of first- and second-generation students to one another and to the overall undergraduate student population in higher education, to provide data on the size and makeup of the campus immigrant population, and on the nature of immigrant students' experiences once in college. 

Over all, about 23 percent of all undergraduates in 2007-8 were either immigrants themselves (10 percent) or the children of first-generation immigrants (13 percent). The proportions of college students who fell into those categories were much higher in some states than others; in California and New York, first- or second-generation immigrants made up 45 and 35 percent of all undergraduates, respectively, while the total was under 15 percent in both Georgia and Minnesota.

Asians accounted for the largest proportion of immigrant students (about 30 percent), followed by Latinos/Hispanics (26 percent) and whites (24 percent). Hispanics made up by far the largest proportion of second-generation-immigrant students at 41 percent, followed by white and Asian students.

Looked at from another angle, though, the numbers are more striking: As seen in the chart below, roughly two-thirds of Hispanic undergraduates and a full 93 percent of Asian students were either first- or second-generation immigrants, compared, as stated above, to 23 percent of all undergraduates. More than half (55 percent) of Asian undergraduates were themselves first-generation immigrants.

The significance of those numbers becomes clearer when their socioeconomic and educational backgrounds are explored. Between 32 and 38 percent of first- and second-generation Asian and Latino undergraduates were in the lowest socioeconomic bracket in the United States, compared to about a quarter of all undergraduate students, and 38 percent of Asian and 55 percent of Hispanic immigrant students were the first in their generation to go to college, compared to about a third of all undergraduates. And while 88 percent of all undergraduates grew up in homes where English was the primary spoken language, just 18 percent of Hispanic and 26 percent of Asian immigrant students did, and 48 and 59 percent of second-generation Hispanic and Asian undergraduates, respectively.

Hispanic and Asian immigrant students reported taking more remedial coursework in college than did their peers -- significantly so, in the case of Latino students, with 52 percent of first-generation Hispanic undergraduates and 46 percent of second-generation Hispanic students saying they had taken a remedial course since high school, compared to 35 percent for all undergraduates. Forty percent of first-generation Asian immigrants said they had taken a post-high-school remedial course.


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