OCTOBER 28, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging every aspect of college life — from health and mental health, to student and institutional finances, to teaching and student engagement. But a less visible crisis — the slow but steady decline in the young adult population — may prove more disruptive to higher education than the pandemic. The improbable solution: the children of immigrants.
The demographic trend is unmistakable. In 2019, the number of births in the U.S. hit a 30-year low. The COVID — 19 pandemic and its wake of economic destruction and job loses will continue a downward momentum in the numbers of births. Even before the pandemic created new barriers to higher education, enrollment was becoming an existential issue for colleges and universities.
The only group counteracting the trend are the children of immigrants. The number of US–born adults with immigrant parents is projected to more than double between 2015 and 2035. A new study by the Migration Policy Institute shows that the children of immigrants are the fastest growing sector of the US college population accounting for 28 percent of all college students in the US. In California today 50 percent of college students are immigrant-origin (first or second generation), in New York it the number is 39 percent, and in Massachusetts it is 34 percent. This will be the case moving forward: over 17 million children under age 18 born in the United States are children of immigrants.
All of us should be rooting for their integration. A study by the National Research Council shows that when given the opportunity, immigrants embrace an American identity. The data show them gravitating toward American cultural norms, embracing the English language, and improving educational levels, occupational diversity and incomes in their communities. That’s good for them as well as good for the country.
When they have access to higher education, they develop the higher-order cognitive and socio-emotional skills crucial to the state’s innovation-based economy. The new MPI data suggest that all “net labor force growth in the United States over the next 15 years is expected to come from immigrant-origin workers. Their future is our future. But integration and the benefits it brings face real and growing threats including racial animus, xenophobia, and growing income inequality.
The immigrant-origin population make up a large share of college students who are racial and ethnic minorities. More than 85 percent of Asian and Pacific Island college students, 63 percent of Latinx college students, and 25 percent of Black college students are first-or second- generation immigrant origin. As such, they are subject to the under-tows of systemic racism that affect student access, success, and completion in higher education.
Further, in recent years rising tides of xenophobia have created a number of further obstacles. The majority of these students are citizens (68 percent by birth-right and another 16 through naturalization) with the same rights as native born peers. Yet, their fates are tied to their families who have been subject to systematic changes to migration policies (such public charge, asylum, and deportation regulations) that negatively affect all members of immigrant origin families. Further, relentless hostile social and political messages about immigrants has likely implications for their finding a sense of belonging to our nation.
Lastly, growing and well documented income inequality disproportionally affects immigrant origin students. Too many immigrant students, especially those from Latinx homes, are growing up in conditions of poverty. While most of their parents were employed prior to the pandemic (with unemployment rates of 4.8%) these jobs tend to be low-paying and precarious. As the pandemic descended upon us, Latinx unemployment rates reached levels of 18.5 percent with women exceeding 20 percent. Food insecurity, already high has risen dramatically amongst immigrant families. With a ethos of family responsibility, all family members are called upon to pitch in as they can to contribute to family income.
Taken together, these obstacles can and do lead to socio-emotional problems, increased absenteeism, and academic decline for immigrant college students — to the detriment of us all. A college education teaches all students to co-exist while respecting, articulating and celebrating our differences, and does the all-important job of reading young adults for democratic citizenship that is at the core of our republic. We must seek to find ways for all of our students to flourish.
The pandemic has created myriad and intense financial pressures on state governments, but policymakers at the local and national level should continue to prioritize support for public higher education because it is central to upward mobility and social justice.We need the help. While some private institutions can and will endure the pandemic, public higher education as a system lacks the funding structure and endowments that provide a financial cushion to many of our private school counterparts.
Immigrant families are faithful believers in higher education. Our immigrant origin students today will go on to be over-represented as engineers, scientists, doctors and winners of the Nobel Prize. A new research study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that immigrants have won almost 40% of the Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans in Chemistry, Medicine and Physics since 2000. In 2019, two immigrants earned Nobel Prizes, one in chemistry and one in physics.
If the 20th century was the era of mass migrations, the 21st will be the century of the children of immigrants. In helping them integrate, our higher education system and all that it touches will be the better for it. Our country will be better too.
Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, is the UCLA Wasserman Dean Emeritus of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. He is the author, most recently, of Immigration and the State.