The U.S. Department of Education recently released new data on university undergraduates that underscores the key role immigrants and their children play in our economy. New American Undergraduates examines the enrollment trends of immigrant (foreign-born) and second-generation (born in the U.S. to at least one foreign-born parent) students. Together, they are referred to as New Americans, and they comprise an important share of college students who will then move on to contribute to the U.S. economy as workers, entrepreneurs, taxpayers, consumers, and homeowners.

Earlier this year, the National Academies of Sciences also found that the adult children of immigrants are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the U.S. population, contributing more in taxes than other populations.

The Department of Education study only examines immigrant students who have permanent residency or are naturalized U.S. citizens. Undocumented students are not included in the analysis. Among the key findings:

  • Foreign-born undergraduates consistently comprised 8-10 percent of all college undergraduates from 1999 to 2012. Nationally, the foreign-born make up 13 percent of the U.S. population.
  • The share of second-generation immigrants increased between 1999 and 2012. The proportion of second-generation college undergraduates increased from 10 percent to 16 percent. At the same time, the number of third-plus generation students (born to U.S. citizen parents) declined slightly from 81 percent to 76 percent.
  • Of all first-generation immigrant undergraduates, the majority were either Asian (28 percent) or Hispanic (32 percent) from 2011-12. When looking at the second-generation however, Asians increased to 46 percent, while Hispanics decreased to 14 percent of second-generation undergraduates.
  • During the 2011-12 school year, about one half of Asian undergraduates and 17 percent of Hispanic undergraduates were foreign-born. In other words, half of all Asian undergrads and the vast majority of all Hispanic undergraduates were born in the U.S.
  • Most foreign-born undergraduates arrived in the United States when they were very young. Forty-six percent arrived in the United States as children, while 20 percent arrived as adolescents.
  • The majority of all U.S. undergraduates (57 percent) were female in 2011-12. Among foreign-born Asian undergraduates, 56 percent were female, and among foreign-born Hispanics, 62 percent were female. But by the second generation, only 53 percent of Asian undergraduates and 56 percent of Hispanic undergraduates are women.
  • Only 19 percent of foreign-born Hispanic undergrads and 24 percent of foreign-born Asian undergrads reported English as the primary language spoken at home. In other words, many kids who arrived in the U.S. at a young age and grew up in homes speaking other languages are now bilingual and bicultural and attend U.S. universities.

Study after study has shown that native-born Americans are getting older, and if not for first and second generation Americans, population growth and labor force growth would slow considerably. In fact, “growth of the third-plus generation is all but vanishing, with almost all of the 9 million net additions to the working-age population coming from the ranks of the first and second generations” during the 2020s.

These two reports together show that the foreign-born and second generation undergraduates of today are the economic drivers of tomorrow.

Photo by Michael Tipton.