Factors Affecting Educational Success of the Children of Immigrants

Education is a key aspect of assimilation into the American mainstream. It has been long believed that America’s K-12 education has been the key for upward mobility of children of immigrants (). This was the case during the nineteenth century, as the white European immigrants were expected to “move ahead” and get “Americanized”  through the public school system; which they did, as they were largely absorbed into the nation’s major social and political institutions within a couple of generations and became upwardly mobile over time” (). Although this “linear model” of assimilation was successful—largely due to educational success—for the European wave of immigrants in the nineteenth century, the model is not applicable to the current children of immigrants due to many factors such as language, stereotypes based on educational success of older generations, and socioeconomic status.

Language is an enormous factor of educational success. In the United States, it is virtually impossible to finish school without knowledge of English. Many extremely intelligent children of immigrants fail to have any success in school simply because they do not know the language. Mexican immigrants are especially notorious for poor educational attainment; only 39.8 percent of Mexican born men have a high school diploma (Batalova 2008). Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Mexican immigrants are not proficient in English, as almost 75 percent of Mexican immigrants reported speaking English less than very well (Batalova 2008). Although these statistics largely represent Mexican born adult immigrants, the mere fact that the children of these immigrants will have parents who cannot speak English can threaten to hinder their English development. Language is not the only factor that can affect educational success; the educational success of prior generations can also play a tremendous role in the educational success of current children of immigrants.

The educational success of prior generations is an extremely important determinant of the educational success of current generations for numerous reasons; especially the stereotypes developed by native citizens; society will naturally develop stereotypes based on their first impressions. If an older generation of an immigrant group comes to America and rapidly achieves educational success, the later generations will most likely obtain benefits from society due to the positive impression made by the older generation. This is very evident today as for many generations; Asian immigrants have gained a reputation to strive academically. Due to this reputation, educational institutions will make greater investments in Asian immigrants than they would for Mexican immigrants; who suffer from stereotypes of low educational attainment; stereotypes that were developed based on the low economic success of earlier generations of Mexican immigrants (Crosnoe 2011).

Socioeconomic status is also a tremendous factor concerning education attainment for immigrant children. It is significantly harder for children of immigrants with low socioeconomic status to be successful educationally for many reasons. Firstly, low socioeconomic status increases stress and increases the possibility of distractions. Low socioeconomic status also increases the possibility that the children will have to drop out of school and get jobs (very low wage jobs due to little to no educational attainment) to help support their families. This continues to negatively affect numerous immigrant children as they feel as though they have no choice but to abandon their educational careers in order to help their families survive.

Educational success of children of immigrants is a very complex subject that is based on numerous factors. Knowledge of the English language, stereotypes based on educational success of older generations, and socioeconomic status are just three of many other factors that affect the educational outcomes of different immigrant groups.


Batalova, Jeanne. Apr. 2008. “Migration Information Source – Mexican Immigrants in the United States.” The Migration Information Source. <http://www.migrationinformation.org/feature/display.cfm?ID=679>.

Crosnoe, Robert, and Ruth N. Lopez Turley. 2011. K-12 Educational Outcomes of Immigrant Youth. Rep. 1st ed. Vol. 21.

Mary: A 2nd Generation College Student

Mary is the child of two immigrant parents from California.  She is currently a sophomore at Vassar College, a highly selective private four-year college in Upstate New York.  My research (see my blog post “Attainment of Higher Education for Immigrants: What Exactly is Possible?) concludes that access to private colleges is severely restricted for many children of immigrants.  I recently sat down with Mary to discuss her educational trajectory and see what factors enabled her to attend such an esteemed postsecondary institution.  My questions are in bold and Mary’s answers are in plain text.

Are both of your parents immigrants?  If so, where are they from and when did they immigrate?

Yes, they both are.  My dad immigrated about twenty five years ago and my mom immigrated about twenty years ago and they’re both from Mexico.

Do your parents have college degrees?  If so, from where?

No. Neither of them.

Do you have any siblings?

Yeah, two brothers.  Older and younger.

Are they in college?  If so, where?


Did you attend public or private school?

Private school.

How big was your high school?

It’s small.  It’s like a hundred and seventy five students in total.

What was the ethnic make up of your high school?

It was mostly minorities.  Maybe like two or three white people in my class.  But it was like Blacks, Latinos, Tongans.

Did your high school implement ‘tracking’ in terms of its courses/policies?  If so, what track were you in?

Yeah.  We had AP courses and we ahd different levels of math, that’s the first one I know.  It’s advanced math, then regular, and then people who need help with math.  I was in the AP track.

Were there other children of immigrants in your track?

I was in the top and advanced classes in all subjects.  Half of {children of imms] were in the advanced ones and half were in the lower.

Were there a lot of children of immigrants in your school?

Yeah, I’d say about 90% of the population, at least.

What did your school offer in terms of resources to help you search for and apply to colleges?

We had a high school counselor, about one for every forty students.  She was definitely working with us individually, helping us know which colleges to apply to and which ones she recommends.

What types of schools did other children of immigrants in your high school attend?  Liberal arts colleges?  Public universities?  Community Colleges?

Some of them went to Stanford.  Others went to Community College.  Others went to public institutions—UCLA, Yale.  It was all over the map, definitely.

Did you participate in a college prep program?  Was this run through your school or privately?

We had a class called College Readiness.  It was a class where we had to do a lot of writing how college teachers would want us to write.  Just like the resources we need to apply to college, what resources we need to get, preparation for the SATs, and ACTs.  The whole period was dedicated to filling out applications, later filling out the FAFSA.

Did everyone have to take that?

Yeah, it was a requirement so everyone had to take it.

How big was that class?

They only offered two classes and it was about 25 students each.

What types of colleges/universities did you look at?

I looked at schools all over the map.  For my [high] school we have to apply to reach, safety, and target schools.  So I definitely applied to safety schools, the ones I knew I could get into.  Not community colleges, but like Mount Saint Marys.  UC Merced.  Everyone who applied got in.

So did you look mostly at smaller colleges?

Yeah.  I liked the smallness of my highschool.  I liked how teachers focused their time on individuals.  I visted the big schools like UCLA and UC Berkley and it was humongous, so I didn’t see myself there.

Why did you choose Vassar?

Mainly because of financial aid.  I liked that it was in New York, I’ve neve been here before.  I thought it would be a great experience to go across the country to a small liberal arts school.  I liked that it was small and there were no requirements.

Was financial aid an important factor when looking at schools?

For everyone in my high school, yeah.


Mary is working towards a degree in Sociology.  She plans on studying abroad in Europe next fall.

Attainment of Higher Education for Children of Immigrants: What exactly is Possible?

In modern America’s society and economy, post-secondary school attendance is more important than ever, with students enrolling at enormous rates.  Record enrollment is occurring “across all institutional types.  [By 2005], public four-year enrollments increased by 39%, private four-year enrollments by 66%, and public and private two-year enrollments by 138%” (Price and Wohlford 2005: 60-61).  However, for children of immigrants in this country, access to higher education is severely stratified, with few options available in terms of the institutions that they are able to attend.  These discrepancies in attainment are shaped and perpetuated by three primary factors: socioeconomic status, availability of information regarding the college application process, and the rigor and policies of secondary schools.  Due to these three primary factors, most children of immigrants attend two-year community colleges, with few able to attend public universities and private colleges.

Socioeconomic Status

For many children of immigrants, access to higher education is severely limited due to economic constraints.  Post-secondary schools are a major investment and “according to the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance (2002), more than 150,000 college-qualified students each year do not enroll in any post-secondary institutions due to inadequate financial aid” (Price etc. 2005: 64).  Many of these students are children of immigrants—unable to attend college because their families belong to an inescapable underclass.  However, “despite what is popularly understood, the issue isn’t only the cost of higher education and financial aid, but the simple need to spend time working for the survival of the family” (Berg 2010: 112).  Many students are torn between pursuing degrees for their own personal futures versus attending to familial duties.  Thus, for many children of immigrants, “the opportunity costs for attending college are too great, and thus they choose to work rather than attend college” (Kurlaender and Flores 2005: 26).

Access to Information 

Often, children of immigrants have limited access to information regarding higher education processes and opportunities.  This lack of information begins at home. “The children of parents who are not in a position to help them prepare for and navigate the post-secondary system are likely to struggle” (Baum and Flores 2011: 186).  In addition, “there is a close relationship between parental education and school readiness, performance on achievement tests, grades, drop-out rates, school behavior problems, and school engagement” (Suarez-Orozco, Suarez-Orozco, and Todorova 2008:37). Overall, immigrant parents without degrees themselves are unable to aid their children with the necessary processes for attending college.  In addition, some children of immigrants attend poor, low-quality schools without sufficient resources to advise and assist college application processes.  At the end of the day, many of these students have parents and schools that are unable to facilitate the transition to higher education.

 Rigor/Policies of Secondary Schools

More often than not, children of immigrants “are more likely to attend racially and economically segregated, low-performing schools with weaker resources, such as fewer qualified teachers, a less rigorous curriculum and worse facilities” (Kurlaender and Flores 2005: 26).  Underfunded schools are unable to provide the resources necessary for a rigorous, high-quality education.  In turn, children of immigrants who attend these schools are not prepared academically for college-level work.  Alternatively, if these students do attend better schools, they are often denigrated to remedial courses through the practice of “tracking.”  This pipeline process separates students into different trajectories of above average and below average courses of study.  Children of immigrants often find themselves in the latter category and many “internalize the low expectations of the school settings in which they work and often steer…away from applying [to college]” (Suarez-Orozco etc. 2008: 141-142).  In short, the rigor and policies of the secondary schools that children of immigrants attend bear heavily on their post-secondary educational outcomes.

Community College

Due to a combination of the three factors mentioned above, many children of immigrants enter Community College as a fast-tracked form of higher education, as they “have provided immigrants and other less well-off populations with a second opportunity to get educational credentials” (Trillo 2004: 58).  Community Colleges provide higher education for less money and with a lower expected level of academic preparedness, acting as ideal institutions for children of immigrants who are unable to attend public or private colleges for financial and academic reasons.  In addition, students are expected to transfer to four-year institutions upon completion of a Community College degree.  However, “while some do, the transfer rate to four-year colleges is surprisingly low and the dropout rate for students who pursue this route is appallingly high, especially for students of color” (Suarez-Orozco etc. 2008: 142).  In this sense, while attaining a BA is the ultimate goal of Community College attendees, children of immigrants ultimately emerge as disadvantaged as they started, “attaining fewer years of education and fewer BA degrees than students of comparable social background, educational aspirations, and high school preparation who enter four year colleges” (Karen and Dougherty 2005: 37-38).

Public and Private Four-Year Institutions

Public universities and private colleges emerge as less probable options for children of immigrants.  They are often expensive and demanding in terms of academic preparedness and expectations.  Many children of immigrants are ill equipped academically and financially to attend these higher institutions—they require high GPAs and SAT scores, which many children of immigrants do not have due to the rigor of their high school education.  Between the two, however, public state-owned universities are a more likely option, as “a number of states have implemented policies that offer in-state college tuition to out-of-state students who meet certain requirements” (Baum and Flores 2011: 184).  While this relieves some of the financial pressure, state universities are still difficult for children of immigrants to attend due to reasons of access to information and level of academic preparedness.

Private colleges are even more unlikely options—they are highly selective and expensive institutions that pander directly to the elite upper class.  In addition, these public and private universities “supported the founding of community colleges not just to expand college opportunity, but also to keep the universities academically selective by channeling less prepares students away from their doors” (Karen and Dougherty 2005: 42).  In this sense, it seems that the idea of “tracking” can extend to the post-secondary level—with Community College acting as less-elite options for the underclass, as public and private universities and colleges are reserved for wealthier and predominantly white middle and upper classes.

Works Cited

Baum, Sandy and Flores, Stella M.  2011.  “Higher Education and Children in Immigrant Families.”  The Future of Children 21(1): 171-193.

Berg, Gary.  2010.  Low-Income Students and the Perpetuation of Inequality.  Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Karen, David and Kevin J. Dougherty.  2005.  “Necessary but Not Sufficient: Higher Education as a Strategy of Social Mobility.”  Pp. 33-58 in Higher Education and the Color Line, edited by G. Orfield, P. Marin, and C. Horn.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kulraender, Michal and Stella M. Flores.  2005.  “The Racial Transformation of Higher Education.”  Pp. 11-32 in Higher Education and the Color Line, edited by G. Orfield, P. Marin, and C. Horn.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Price, Derek V. and Jill K. Wohlford.  2005.  “Equity in Educational Attainment: Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Inequality in the 50 States.”  Pp. 59-82 in Higher Education and the Color Line, edited by G. Orfield, P. Marin, and C. Horn.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Suzrez-Orozco, Carola, Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco, and Irina Todorova.  2008.  Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society.  Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Trillo, Alex.  2004.  “Somewhere Between Wall Street and El Barrio: Community College as a Second Chance for Second-Generation Latino Students.”  Pp. 57-78 in Becoming New Yorkers: Ethnographies of the New Second Generation, edited by P. Kasinitz, J. Mollenkopf, and M. Wates.  New York: Russell Sage Foundation.