Immigrant Education Levels Rise
The Washington Post, December 4, 2002
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Education levels among Latino immigrants have sharply improved in recent
decades, according to a report released yesterday that suggests such Hispanics
will begin to close the yawning gap they have with native-born Americans.
The study of census data, conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, found that the
percentage of adult Latino immigrants who had completed only high school in 2000
had more than doubled since 1970, to 41 percent. An additional 18 percent had
gone on to college, nearly twice the figure of three decades earlier.
In contrast, about 53 percent of native-born Americans had just a high-school
degree in 2000, and an additional 35 percent had studied further, it said.
"Latino immigrants have done much better than is typically portrayed, and it's
likely they will continue to close the education gaps in the future," said the
report's principal author, B. Lindsay Lowell.
The education level of Latin American immigrants has become a major issue in
recent years, since their numbers have grown dramatically, to represent around
half the current foreign-born population of the United States.
Opponents of the large-scale immigration that began in the 1970s argue that
poorly educated newcomers add to poverty rolls.
One such opponent, Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, said
the improvement by Latino immigrants wasn't enough.
"The fundamental question still remains: Why bring in
hundreds of thousands of high-school dropouts each year when we don't have to?
We're, in effect, importing poverty," he said.
The report predicted that the gap in education between the two groups would
narrow, in part for a technical reason: U.S. natives have reached a plateau,
with nearly 90 percent graduating from high school and a large number filling
universities, it said.
At the same time, the report said, several factors have been driving up
education levels among foreign-born Latinos. First, more families are
immigrating from Latin America than in the past, when the flow consisted mainly
of young men. That means children are arriving young enough to attend U.S.
schools. They typically go on to complete more study than
those educated in Latin America, the report said.
Second, education levels have been rising in sending countries, especially among
women. Third, older immigrants, many with very low education levels, are dying.
The percentage of Latino immigrants who had completed only primary school or
less plunged from 72 percent to 41 percent in the past three decades, the report
"When you look at the U.S. population in 1970 and the Latino immigrant
population today, the levels of educational attainment are actually fairly
close," said the report's co-author, Roberto Suro, a former Washington Post
He and Lowell predicted, however, that a narrowing of the educational gap was a
medium- to long-term process.
The report said that the least-educated Latino immigrants were those
unauthorized to work or live in the United States; about two-thirds of them had
not finished high school. About half the net increase of the Mexican- and
Central American-born population in the 1990s came from such illegal
immigration, it said.
Ruben G. Rumbaut, a sociologist at the University of California at Irvine who
has been carrying on a massive nationwide study of first- and second-generation
immigrant children, said the report's conclusions didn't surprise him. He added
that his research showed that even the children of little-educated immigrants
often excelled in school, due in part to their parents' high expectations.
Difficulties can arise among later generations, however, as the immigrant work
ethic declines and youths may feel their ambitions blocked by discrimination and
poverty, he said.