Unraveling the Immigrant Education Paradox

By John Wahala on March 5, 2017

In her recent Atlantic piece, Emily Deruy reports on new research that challenges the notion of an "immigrant paradox" — the theory that immigrant students outperform their native-born counterparts, in spite of all the obstacles, but that this upperward mobility is slowed across generations, perhaps because of some deficiency in American culture.

The research, conducted by Cynthia Feliciano and Yader Lanuza of UC Irvine, provides a new perspective on previous studies that show first-generation students achieving an advantage over their classmates of similar socioeconomic backgrounds. The starting point of all of those studies is arrival in the United States. This, according to Feliciano and Lanuza, fails to place educational attainment within its geographic and historic context. They claim to be the first education researchers to incorporate parental characteristics before arrival — an idea that seems obvious and necessary in hindsight.

Combining two datasets that include information gathered from thousands of adolescents in 146 countries over the course of several decades, the authors find that immigrants are much better educated than the fellow citizens they left behind. But this academic standing relative to their peers is lost upon arrival in the United States.

For example, Mexican immigrant parents of 1.5 generation children (kids born in Mexico) completed an average of 9.4 years of school, giving them more education than 57 percent of their peers back home, but putting them in the 12th percentile in the United States. Similarly, East Asian immigrant parents completed 14.3 years of schooling, placing them in the 89th percentile in their respective countries of origin, but in the 57th percentile here.

It is not just educational attainment that loses value in an American context. As Feliciano and Lanuza explain, immigrants often take jobs that require less skill than their previous occupations because credentials do not translate or language and cultural barriers are too difficult to overcome.

According to Feliciano and Lanuza, none of these transition costs were factored into previous education analyses. Researchers did not take into account immigrants' social standing in their countries of origin or the expectations that standing created for their children. Their research does and, as a consequence, they find that the most common pattern among immigrants and their children "is not extraordinary upward mobility, but class reproduction."

The authors acknowledge that educational outcomes from the first to second generation see a significant improvement in the American context. They cite studies that show them earning higher grades, test scores, and educational attainments than their counterparts with native-born parents. The children of immigrants obtain more years of schooling than their parents, giving them a dramatic rise in the percentile ranking. But this improvement disappears when placed in a broader context. In fact, when taking parental standing in their home countries into account, Feliciano and Lanuza find that the "the direction of intergenerational change is not upward but downward."

For example, the average years of schooling that the children of East Asian immigrants complete puts them in the 77th percentile, which is lower than their parents' 89th percentile standing back home. The children of Southeast Asian immigrants score in the 56th percentile, well below their parents 83rd percentile average in their respective countries of origin. The children of Mexican immigrants score in the 40th percentile, significantly lower than their parents' 68th percentile standing in Mexico. Feliciano and Lanuza note that these three cases illustrate a larger pattern consistent with all of the immigrant groups in their study — none of which demonstrate an upward trend in intergenerational mobility when home country context is considered.

They "see little evidence of an overall immigrant or second-generation advantage in educational attainment" and are concerned with long-term intergenerational trends, calling particular attention to the downward mobility of Mexican-American students. And they cite other researchers who note that "Hispanic and Asian youth make tremendous strides in educational attainment relative to their parents [in an American context]. But this trend in upward socioeconomic mobility reverses by the third generation."

Feliciano and Lanuza provide a valuable new perspective on immigrant education. One of the things their research affirms is the fact that the United States does not admit the most vulnerable people in the world. Those who choose to emigrate are typically better educated and have more resources than their compatriots back home. They are self-selected and industrious individuals who are willing and able to uproot their families in hopes of improving their life. An often overlooked point in this is that our federal immigration program does nothing to alleviate global poverty. Given the billions of impoverished people around the world, no immigration policy could. But we are taking members of the middle to upper classes. In doing so, we may actually be helping perpetuate poverty by encouraging individuals who have the intelligence and initiative to disproportionately improve the conditions of those around them, to leave their respective countries.

Furthermore, coming from these successful family backgrounds does not guarantee accomplishment in America. Feliciano and Lanuza find that, in spite of their noteworthy efforts, the children of immigrants fail to obtain the socioeconomic standing their parents had back home. And the struggle to succeed appears to get harder across generations. The authors cite Ruben Rumbaut, who argues that there is "an erosion of an ethos of achievement and hard work from the immigrant generation to the third generation."

Perhaps Feliciano and Lanuza's education theory that children emulate their parents — the age-old notion that has informed humanity throughout time and across cultures — is also applicable in explaining this erosion. Declining academic outcomes become the standard, as successive generations remain socially and linguistically segregated in enclaves that are the result of mass immigration that is expected to continue at record pace. As the authors note, it is estimated that by 2040, nearly one third of all children will be raised in immigrant families.