High School Graduates from Immigrant Families Just as Likely to Succeed in College as American-Born Peers

High school graduates from immigrant families are as likely to go on to college and to perform as well academically as their peers from American-born families, according to a study funded in part by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), one of the National Institutes of Health.

The study also found that students from immigrant families are more likely to support their families financially than are their American-born counterparts and some are more likely to live with their parents.

Youth from Latin American immigrant families have lower rates of college enrollment and are less likely to earn four-year college degrees than their counterparts from East Asian (predominantly Chinese) and Filipino immigrant families.

The study appears in the Journal of Research on Adolescence.

"Children from immigrant families will be a vital part of our nation's workforce when they grow up," said Duane Alexander, M.D., Director of the NICHD. "This study shows that youth from immigrant families can succeed in our educational system and gain the skills they need for adult life."

More than one in five children in the United States today are in an immigrant family-either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census's March 2002 Current Population Survey. "If current trends continue, the share of American children in immigrant families will continue to rise," said Rebecca Clark, Ph.D., of NICHD's Demographic and Behavioral Sciences Branch. In addition, a large share of ethnic minority children resides in immigrant families, including 86 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander children and 65 percent of Hispanic children.

In the current study, the researchers found that high school graduates from East Asian backgrounds generally fared better than those from Filipino, Latin American, and European backgrounds. Students from East Asian backgrounds had higher enrollment rates, higher grade point averages, and greater attendance at four-year colleges than other ethnic groups. Students from an East Asian background generally came from families that had attained high educational levels in their home countries. Similarly, the study authors found that students from East Asian backgrounds also had high aspirations for educational attainment, and their strong academic performance during high school carried into postsecondary education.

Earlier studies of immigrant education and attainment focused on adult immigrants who received their education in their native countries. This study is one of the first to examine the success of immigrant children and how they balanced the demands of school, home, and after-school jobs.

Andrew J. Fuligni, Ph.D., and Melissa Witkow, M.S., of the University of California, Los Angeles, collected school records and questionnaires from 1,004 twelfth-grade adolescents from two public high schools in the San Francisco Bay area. The schools had a substantial percentage of families from Chinese, Filipino, Latin American, and European American backgrounds. About two-thirds of the families were immigrant families in which at least one of the parents was born outside the United States. The families were economically diverse: some parents received only a high school education or less, while others received advanced graduate and professional degrees.

When the students were in twelfth-grade, the researchers measured factors such as their academic performance, their own educational goals, the educational goals that they believed their parents held for them, whether they valued academic success, and the sense of obligation they felt to their families. Three years later, two-thirds of the adolescents were interviewed by phone. By then, virtually all were either high school graduates or had received their general equivalency diploma, and very few were married or had children. The researchers measured their postsecondary educational progress, including enrollment in two- or four-year college, grade point average, and progress they made toward the degree. They also measured a category they referred to as persistence toward degree-the likelihood that a student would continue their education until their degree requirements were completed. Other measures included student employment, whether the student lived with his or her parents, and financial contributions to the family.

The researchers found that youth from immigrant families pursued and performed in college at levels equal to those of their American-born peers. Among the immigrant families, however, there were differences in post-secondary educational progress. In all, 96 percent of the children of East Asian immigrant families who graduated from high school enrolled in post-secondary school, compared with 63 percent of children from Latin American immigrant families.

The current study is one of three funded by the NICHD to look at factors influencing educational success among children from immigrant families. Another study looks at factors influencing educational success of elementary school children and is currently under way. The third study, published in the November 2003 issue of Demography, followed high school students from immigrant families and found that family characteristics such as parents' income and education, race/ethnicity, and language had a greater effect on achievement levels and gains than the length of time a student lived in the United States.

In addition, the NICHD is helping to fund the New Immigrant Survey (NIS), a long-term study of immigrants and their children. NIS will track changes over time in health, economic status, schooling, use of governmental services, English language skills, religion, and children's academic achievements. Other agencies contributing to this research effort are the National Institute on Aging, also at the NIH, and NIH's parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services. The Department of Homeland Security and the National Science Foundation are also providing funding for the project. Information about the NIS can be found at http://nis.princeton.edu External Web Site Policy.


The NICHD is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the biomedical research arm of the federal government. NIH is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. NICHD publications, as well as information about the Institute, are available from the NICHD Web site, http://www.nichd.nih.gov, or from the NICHD Information Resource Center, 1-800-370-2943; e-mail NICHDInformationResourceCenter@mail.nih.gov.

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