The Myth of Immigrants' Educational Attainment

Those who move to the United States tend to have higher socioeconomic standing in their native countries than what they settle for when they arrive.

Christine Armario / AP

There’s a popular theory that says children raised in immigrant families do better in school than the offspring of comparable native-born Americans, despite language barriers and cultural misunderstandings. The concept even has a name: the “immigrant paradox,” a phrase that has helped spawn the notion that these kids have a remarkable capacity for upward mobility—and that there is perhaps even something subpar about American culture that prevents children whose families have been in the United States longer from advancing as quickly.

But new research from the sociologist Cynthia Feliciano, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, calls that interpretation into question. In a study published this month by the American Sociological Review, Feliciano and a doctoral student named Yader Lanuza found that the reason immigrant families appear so successful is not upward mobility, but the ability to work their way into the same class they occupied in their native country.

“It’s actually not that paradoxical,” Feliciano said during a phone interview, “because we need to consider that immigrant parents tend to be fairly well-educated when we consider the context they’re coming from in their home countries.” In other words, if a student’s parents were part of the upper-middle class in, say, the Philippines, then there are what Feliciano dubs “class-specific resources,” such as having high educational aspirations, that help that child work her way into the American upper-middle class.

Previous research has compared children from immigrant families to children of native-born Americans from the same socioeconomic status using markers like how many years of education their parents have and how much they earn once they’re in the United States. Yet, Feliciano says, that doesn’t make sense, because a high-school diploma goes significantly further in the Philippines than it does in the United States, and immigrants often work lower-status jobs than they used to because their credentials don’t always transfer and language barriers can complicate the job search.

Relying on a longitudinal health survey and international education data, Feliciano discovered that most immigrant kids who succeed ultimately come from families who were successful in their native countries. That makes sense because, Feliciano points out, the families that migrate to the United States tend to have higher socioeconomic and educational standing than families who do not migrate. So it’s not that immigrating motivates kids to be high-achievers, it’s that their families have expected high achievement all along. That’s true, Feliciano finds, “even in the face of loss of status in the U.S. context.”

As Feliciano lays out in the study, only about 8 percent of women in their late 20s in the 1980s in the United States completed less than some secondary school. But Filipino women who completed some secondary schooling in the Philippines were more educated than 66 percent of their peers. Similarly educated women in Mexico were more educated than 88 percent of their peers. So while an American woman with some secondary school would be considered relatively uneducated in the United States, a Mexican or Filipino woman with some secondary school would be considered relatively highly educated in her native country.

Consider this scenario: A Filipino woman starts and runs her own business in the Philippines. Then, her family moves to the United States. Without a college degree and possibly still learning English, she works as a home health aid instead of pursuing a management role at a corporate office. The pay is significantly lower than what an executive could earn, but the lower paycheck doesn’t mean she’s suddenly lost the skills that propelled her to become a success businesswoman in her native country. And, crucially, Feliciano’s research suggests, she’s likely to cultivate those skills in her own children.

The study is timely because around a third of American children are expected to be raised in immigrant families by about 2040. Understanding the factors that contribute to their success will be crucial to understanding public education broadly. Feliciano says this latest research pushes back at the idea, proffered by people such as Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld in their book The Triple Package, that some immigrants gain an advantage simply by replicating ethnic-specific cultural traits, such as self-discipline or the belief in their ability to excel. Those traits don’t “come out of nowhere,” Feliciano argues; they are tied to education and class structure, too. And the results seem to hold true for refugee families as well, which makes sense because many refugees are more educated than the general populations of the countries they leave behind.

While the study provides new context that punctures holes in the idea of the “immigrant paradox,” there are still plenty of areas for future research. Some previous research has indicated Mexican students experience significant upward mobility (in part because children of Mexican immigrants more than double the rates of high-school and college graduation of their parents). But these students still have relatively low levels of educational attainment compared to other racial and ethnic groups, around the 40th percentile, according to the study. And, Feliciano said, while there’s a common perception that Mexican immigrants have low education levels, just like other immigrants, they are generally better educated than Mexicans who remain in Mexico, around the 68th percentile. So it’s unclear why, even though some families also come from places with similarly low education levels, such as, say, Indonesia, Mexican children seem to have lower attainment levels when context is considered.

Also worth examining more fully is the fact that average educational attainment varies drastically across the United States, so contextualizing parental education levels on a local scale could offer valuable insight. Likewise, the quality of education is not consistent, so researchers might try to dig into how a bachelor’s degree awarded by a small regional college differs from a degree granted by an Ivy League school.

The study is related to a longer book project that Feliciano and her colleague Rubén Rumbaut are working on, which will trace how children from immigrant families who went to middle school in San Diego in the early 1990s are faring these days—exploring how those children are raising their own families, and how their lives have been affected (or not) by the economic recession in 2008.

Ultimately, Feliciano said, the perception that just anyone is coming to the United States simply is not true. And contextualizing the education levels and occupations immigrants had before arriving offers clues as to what helps their children succeed. “I think people are kind of surprised that people haven’t looked at it in this way,” she said.