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.