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A woman stands with her back to the camera holding her graduation cap.

Students from immigrant backgrounds make up a larger share of U.S. college students than they did two decades ago.

Phira Phonruewiangphing/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Students from immigrant families now make up nearly a third of all students enrolled at American colleges and universities, according to a new report commissioned by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. Students with immigrant parents, or who are immigrants themselves, represented 31 percent of all college students in 2021, up from 20 percent in 2000.

The Presidents’ Alliance released two reports Wednesday. The first, developed in partnership with the American Immigration Council, explores the demographics of the undocumented student population, which is now 1.9 percent of the all college students nationwide. The second, produced by the Migration Policy Institute, focuses on students from immigrant families as a whole. The reports found that both groups of students make up a significant share of U.S. enrollments and boost the racial and ethnic diversity of student bodies.

At least 5.6 million students from immigrant families attended U.S. colleges and universities in 2021, including 3.7 million students born in the U.S. to immigrant parents and 1.9 million immigrant students, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by the Migration Policy Institute. Enrollment rose 94 percent among these students in the past two decades, compared to 6 percent among students from U.S.-born families. Students from immigrant families account for 80 percent of total enrollment growth in U.S. higher education over that same period.

Jeanne Batalova, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said as regions of the country experience a decline in the number of white, traditional-age college students, colleges and universities stand to benefit from recruiting and retaining students from immigrant families.

This population is “often overlooked” but “emerges as a key source of students,” she said. “Looking forward, given the demographics, these trends are going to continue.”

Batalova noted that it’s important for campus leaders to not only pay attention to who’s coming to their campuses but also who isn’t and should be. An estimated two million college-educated immigrant adults are unemployed or have jobs that only require a high school degree, she said. She believes this population could benefit from earning credentials at community colleges or master’s degrees at universities to signal to American employers that they know the nuances of their fields in the U.S. They’re also “low-hanging fruit” for colleges to shore up enrollments and employers to fill workforce gaps.

“In their countries, they’ve invested themselves in their education,” she said. “And yet for all sorts of reasons they are not finding a foothold in the U.S. labor market.”

She noted that immigrants with college degrees from their home countries are too often passed over for well-paying job opportunities despite having such credentials.

Nathan Grawe, an economics professor at Carleton College who has written extensively on the impending demographic cliff, said in a webinar about the reports’ findings Wednesday that “institutions are experiencing enrollment pressure like never before, and understanding who’s in your pool has never been more important.”

“This report is a useful reminder that things are changing and really changing quite quickly,” he said.

Grawe noted that campuses should not only enroll students from immigrant families but also ensure institutions are “student ready” and faculty and staff members are trained to “meet the needs of new student groups in a world in which the students are shifting.”

The undocumented students report showed at least 408,000 undocumented students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities, according to an analysis of 2021 American Community Survey data. Undocumented student enrollment dropped from 427,000 undocumented students in 2019, likely because of enrollment losses over all during the pandemic, the report suggests.

The reports found that undocumented students and students from immigrant families overall are quite diverse. Students from immigrant families are 44 percent Latino, 24 percent Asian American and Pacific Islander, and 13 percent Black. Students of color made up fewer than 30 percent of students from U.S.-born families. Immigrant-origin students make up 88 percent of all Asian students, 68 percent of all Latino students and 28 percent of all Black students in U.S. colleges and universities, compared to 10 percent of white students. The undocumented student population is 45.7 percent Latino, 27.2 percent Asian American and Pacific Islander, nearly 14 percent Black, and 10 percent white.

Felecia Russell, director of the Higher Ed Immigration Portal, a digital platform with research and resources for undocumented students, said these data were especially meaningful to her as a Black person in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children from deportation and allows them to work legally.

“I know as a former student, I wanted to know that more of us existed,” she said at the webinar.

Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance, said the demographic information could be useful to campus leaders trying to figure out how to admit diverse students in light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the use of race as a factor in admissions decisions.

“Campuses that want to maintain a commitment to diversity, that want to work to recruit a diverse student population, they need to take into account in a better way immigrant-origin populations,” Feldblum said. These students not only contribute to the “diversity of experiences” on campus but often approach their studies with a particular “resiliency” and drive.

She believes colleges and universities could do more to support these students, including collecting data on their enrollment rates, offering guidance on how to attain citizenship and pushing state lawmakers to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition and be eligible for state financial aid.

Currently, 23 states permit undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, and 17 of those states also offer them financial aid, according to the undocumented students report. Another 10 states allow in-state tuition for undocumented students but with some limitations attached. For example, some states only allow in-state tuition for DACA recipients.

The report notes that the majority of undocumented students don’t have DACA status, even though most undocumented students were brought to the country at young ages. According to the report, 34 percent came before age 10, and 42.2 percent arrived between the ages of 10 and 16. One barrier to students attaining DACA status is a requirement that they had to have arrived in the U.S. before 2007. Some would otherwise be eligible but were brought after the cutoff.

Despite the high number of students lacking DACA protections, 14.2 percent of undocumented students were pursuing graduate or professional degrees in 2021, an increase from 10.3 percent in 2019. More than a third of them had undergraduate STEM degrees, and among those students, 23.1 percent held degrees in health-care fields.

Feldblum said these students need special help navigating career options, and college leaders should also play a role in pushing federal lawmakers to ensure these students have clear pathways to citizenship.

“When we think about critical skills shortages, the future workforce, it has to include immigrant students, including undocumented students,” she said. “So, this becomes an imperative, not [just] because of enrollment gains, because of economic gains, because of future workforce gains. It’s a much more complex picture.”

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