Immigrants Are Getting More Education

(Digital Vision)

A Brookings report shows that for the first time, the share of working-age immigrants in the U.S. who have college degrees (29.6%) exceeds the share without a high school education (27.8%). In 1980, there were more than twice as many low-skilled immigrants living in the U.S. as high-skilled ones.

The report focuses on demographic trends in the 100 biggest metropolitan areas of the country over the past 15 years. While the Southwest and Great Plains remain destinations for low-skilled immigrant labor, much of the Northeast and Rust Belt now attract more immigrants with college degrees than those without. Some highlights:

  • Forty-four of the 100 largest metropolitan areas are high-skilled immigrant destinations, where college-educated immigrants outnumber immigrants without high school diplomas by at least 25 percent. Most notable is the concentration of high-skilled immigrants in older industrial metro areas in the Midwest and Northeast such as Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Syracuse. Detroit, for instance, has 144 high-skilled immigrants for every 100 low-skilled immigrants.
  • Immigrants’ skill levels vary by metro area due mostly to historical settlement patterns and economic structures. Recent immigrants to metro areas with the fastest-growing immigrant populations have markedly lower educational attainment than immigrants settling elsewhere. In former immigration destinations, or “gateways,” with low levels of contemporary immigration such as Detroit, and re-emerging gateways such as Philadelphia, immigrants have high levels of educational attainment. Whereas in more recent gateways such as Houston and interior California, low-skilled immigrants predominate.
  • Compared with their U.S.-born counterparts, low-skilled immigrants have higher rates of employment and lower rates of household poverty, but also have lower individual earnings, across all metro areas. Nearly half of immigrants with a bachelor’s degree appear to be over-qualified for their jobs.

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Among legal immigrants, this wouldn't surprise me in the least: A legal immigrant that I know (from Canada) tells me that having a college diploma is basically required for immigrants—"except for people from Mexico", in his words.

We've changed our policies since the 1960s and 1970s, when the primary qualification was being some worker's mother. Now, being educated and speaking English are significant factors. With any luck, they'll start passing out green cards (or at least multi-year work permits) at graduation ceremonies to almost anyone who gets a graduate degree from an accredited American university. The US benefits from having smart, hard-working, highly educated people.


As a Mexican with a PhD I can tell you, your friend generalization is not accurate.

It's also not the H1-B a very inefficient system compared with a points system (as they have in Canada) at attracting high-skilled immigrants. My hypothesis is that this has more to do with changes in the countries where immigrants come from, than changes in the United States. The % of people with college degrees around the world (in middle income countries in particular) has increased in the last couple of decades. So a random draw (I am not saying immigrants are randomly chosen, it's an example) of people from those countries is more likely to include college educated people.

The second factor that I think could be behind this is that many foreigners emigrate looking for better educational options. Just walk around the halls of any university in the US, particularly in engineering or sciences. The opportunities in many American universities to do research do no exist at the same quality levels in other countries, forcing people to migrate for those opportunities. American universities take those students, because Americans are less interested in pursuing those fields.

Just my 2 cents as a high-skilled immigrant.


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I'm not sure whether his crack about Mexicans was directed at legal or illegal immigration, but I believe that the farm workers' visas were in the news at the time. In actual historical practice, those temporary visas have disproportionately been given to Mexican men and required zero formal education.

Eric M. Jones.

Is this related to H1-B's? Am I missing something?

Miley Cyrax

Illegal Immigrants != Legal Immigrants != Immigrants in many ways, most notably demographically, we should be wary of that fact when pondering things like this.


A great article that I am sure will be politically exploited for any number of reasons.

"Compared with their U.S.-born counterparts, low-skilled immigrants have higher rates of employment and lower rates of household poverty"

You could be the next republican to lose to Obama on that sentence alone