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Random Samplings: Immigrant Families and Educational Attainment

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How do the foreign born and their children influence educational attainment statistics?

For the first time in U.S. history, one-third (33.4 percent) of the population aged 25 and older are college graduates with bachelor’s or higher degrees. This is part of a continuing trend toward higher rates of bachelor’s degree and advanced (master’s, professional, and doctoral) degree attainment. However, most people do not know that about one-quarter (25 percent) of the population age 25 and older are either foreign born, or have at least one foreign-born parent.

Data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) shows that, on average, rates of college completion are not very different between the foreign born and native born. In 2016, 32 percent of foreign born and 34 percent of native born had attained at least a bachelor’s degree by age 25, while 14 percent of foreign born and 12 percent of native born ages 25 and older had attained a master’s, professional, or doctoral degree by age 25. However, these overall numbers obscure the high level of variation in educational attainment levels among the foreign born (Figure 1).

In 2016, the foreign born had lower rates of high school completion than the native born. About 27 percent of the foreign-born population had less than a high school or equivalent degree by age 25, compared with 8 percent of native born. Nearly 1 in 6 (16 percent) of the foreign born had less than a 9th grade education by age 25, compared with 2 percent of the native born.

The native born were more likely than the foreign born to have completed some college or to have completed an associate’s degree.  The proportion of native born whose highest level of educational attainment by age 25 was “some college or associate’s degree” was 29 percent, compared to 16 percent of the foreign born. This may be because the foreign born with bachelor’s and advanced degrees have a better chance of being admitted to and staying in the U.S., and may also reflect occupational differences that require different kinds of degrees. The Current Population Survey does not ask whether degrees were attained in the United States or abroad.

Current Population Survey data shows that over the past decade, the “second-generation” children of immigrants have a higher rate of college completion than the foreign born (first generation), and even higher than the native born with native-born parentage (third-and-higher generation) (Figure 2).

The top panel in Figure 2 shows the percent with high school or higher education. While the foreign born have relatively low levels of high school completion, as stated above, their children—the second generation, have completed high school at a rate very similar to those in the third-and-higher generation (92 percent for the second and third-and-higher generations in 2016). The second panel in Figure 2 focuses on bachelor’s or higher education. In 2016, 38 percent of the second generation had attained a bachelor’s or higher degree, compared to 32 percent of the first generation, and 33 percent of the third-and-higher generation. Additionally, a larger proportion of the second generation (15 percent) had completed a master’s degree or higher, compared to the first generation or third-and-higher generation (14 percent and 12 percent, respectively).

Taking the first and second generations together, their level of high school completion is below that of the native born with native parents. On the other hand, when it comes to bachelor’s and higher degrees, the foreign born and their children, combined, have higher attainment than the rest of the population. To answer the question posed at the outset, the influence of the foreign born and their children is mixed, but definitely positive at the college level.

The latest educational attainment statistics are available in the new Current Population Survey table package Educational Attainment in the United States: 2016. For information on confidentiality protection, sampling error, nonsampling error, and definitions, see <www.census.gov/prod/techdoc/cps/cpsmar16.pdf>. More current and historical data on educational attainment is on the Census Bureau’s Educational Attainment main page at <www.census.gov/topics/education/educational-attainment.html>.


Page Last Revised - October 8, 2021
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