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.