Immigrants Still Generally Lag in Education

Published on October 29th, 2015

Immigration advocates recently trumpeted a report from the Pew Hispanic Center that the educational attainments of legal immigrants, at all levels of schooling, have greatly increased since 1970. In 2013 the percentage of newly arrived immigrants with post-graduate degrees (18 percent) significantly exceeded the number of native-born Americans with this level of education (11 percent).

One reason offered is that Asian immigrants tend to have more education than Hispanics, and in recent years Asian immigration has increased while Hispanic immigration has declined. It is hard to know whether this trend will continue. Between 2013 and 2015, Mexican immigration, after a previous drop-off, began rising.

University GradsIn any case, the asset of highly educated immigrants is exceeded by the liability of more immigrants than natives at the lower end of the educational scale. This has been the case for the past five decades, and it has created a situation where immigrants on average are much less educated than natives. The recent post-graduate uptick in immigration has done little to change this average.

To illustrate, 27 percent of all immigrants in the U.S. have less than a high school education, compared with just 7 percent of natives; 24 percent only have high school degrees, compared with 29 percent of natives; 17 percent have high school degrees and some college, compared with 30 percent of natives; and 32 percent have college and graduate degrees, compared with 35 percent of natives.

Even as the educational level of immigrants has risen during the past 45 years, as native levels have risen too, there is some question as to whether higher educational levels among immigrants have correspondingly translated into higher skill levels. In recent decades, the years of schooling have greatly increased in the developing countries from which many of our immigrants come. More schooling, however, may not – at least in some instances – provide a higher degree of learning.

The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) does a comparative study on the skill levels of workers in 34 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In the United States, where immigrants make up 15 percent of the workforce, they comprise 34 percent of workers with a low level of literacy and 24 percent of workers with a low level of math skills.

Even as the Pew Hispanic Center noted the improvement of immigrants’ schooling since 1970, it acknowledged that “they also are more likely to be living in poverty than in 1970, and their family incomes are no higher.”

If we want a flow of immigration with a high average of education and skills, we should set a policy with that specific goal in mind, rather than hope that changing sources of immigration may improve matters. The policy we have now for legal immigration stresses family connections, rather than training and skills, as the leading criterion for admission.

In truth we don’t need as many skilled immigrants as immigration advocates often claim. There are many Americans with the needed skills, but quite a few companies prefer not to hire them, instead favoring a lower-wage foreign workforce. And we certainly don’t need so large a number of people with relatively little education and low skills. This particularly will be the case as we move into an increasingly automated economy. According to a study done at Oxford University, within 20 years robots and other machines may do as many as half of the jobs that people now perform in the United States.

An appropriate immigration policy might take a cue from the old Marine Corps saying: “We need a few good men.” A reasonable flow of carefully selected immigrants can help us; mass indiscriminate immigration serves no national benefit.

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