Over the past decade, higher education has faced steep declines in enrollment at all but the most competitive of colleges. Driven by myriad forces — a drop in the college-age population, rising costs, the COVID-19 pandemic, a comparatively attractive labor market — students are enrolling at rates that worry college administrators across the nation. Immigrant origin students, however, provide a demographic beacon of hope that has largely gone unrecognized. It’s time to take stock of their demographic significance and the human capital they bring.
Immigrant origin youth — those with at least one parent born outside of the United States — are the fastest growing group of students in higher education today. New data estimates revealed at the recent Higher Education Pathways to Immigration: Why it Matters Summit indicate they make up a stunning 31 percent of all college students across the United States — a 58 percent increase from 2000 to 2018. The majority (84 percent) of these students are citizens either by birth (68 percent) or through naturalization (16 percent).
These students are adding diversity to the mosaic that is higher education today: 85 percent of all Asian American college students are immigrant origin as are 63 percent of Latine college students,. Twenty-four percent of today’s Black college students are immigrant origin as are 10 percent of white students.
Of course, the role of immigrants in higher education is not new. Brandeis University and the City University of New York were traditional pathways of academic success for Jewish immigrants and their children when selective colleges were blocking their access. Today, immigrant students are following both their own dreams and their parents’ counsel that “no one can take your education from you” by pursuing higher education.
The only group growing enrollments in higher education are immigrant origin students — and they are projected to be the primary group driving growth of the US labor market into 2035. They play a particularly important role in the science, technology, engineering, and math sector of the economy: Approximately a quarter of all STEM workers in our country and well over a quarter of all physicians and surgeons practicing in the United States are immigrant origin.
But is higher education recognizing these students and serving them well? Are those institutions harnessing their energies, creating spaces of belonging, and easing pathways for students who are often the first-generation to attend college? The answer is higher education, the states, and Congress need to do better.
Community colleges are a first stop for many immigrant students, and as such are often more likely to recognize them and provide relevant supports. Locally, Bunker Community College, for example, takes an asset-based approach to serving immigrant students — providing them academic and English learning supports and clear financial aid guidance. Responsive universities have created spaces of inclusion for their most vulnerable immigrant students — students who came to the United States as children, and attended US schools but are undocumented.
Most colleges, however, collapse immigrant origin students into broader ethnic groups (Asian American; Latine, etc.) that fail to recognize the full migratory experience, including lengthy family separations, trauma, and multilingualism, as well as being the first generation to attend a US college. Further, while the majority are citizens, the undertow that our broken immigration system imposes on their journeys is especially harmful for the 1 in 50 college students nation-wide who are high school graduates but have yet to find a pathway to documented status.
These are students who arrived as children, played Little League, attended our places of worship, graduated from our high schools, and were accepted to college. They are full members of the American family in all ways except on paper. The Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protections offered them a reprieve from deportation, the possibility to work, and, in some states, tuition assistance. Now, these students are in limbo as the courts have blocked new applications since 2017; this means that today most undocumented college students are fully undocumented. In many states, they pay prohibitive out-of-state tuition and are not eligible for any form of financial aid, making college a nearly insurmountable journey.
With the current congressional gridlock, comprehensive immigration reform — the aspired gold standard — recedes further and further into an elusive mirage. In the meantime, what should be done to harness the extraordinary energy of immigrant students?
▪ Enact a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including DACA recipient students.
▪ Make undocumented students eligible for federal financial aid.
▪ Expand state public benefits to include access to higher education, in-state tuition, and professional/commercial licensure.
▪ Make all forms of state financial aid — including free college programs like the City of Boston just implemented — available to all residents .
At the higher education level:
▪ Recognize that across many settings, colleges today are increasingly immigrant-serving institutions whose students have shared experiences that cut across ethnic and racial lines.
▪ Embrace and celebrate these students to create inclusive and welcoming learning environments in which they can thrive.
▪ Train dedicated staff to recognize the socio-emotional and legal complexities faced by immigrants to act as informed guides.
Immigration is at once central to the history of the United States as well as to our destiny; as colleges continue to face declining demographics, there needs to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to nurture the talent of the next generation — the American immigrant generation.
Carola Suárez-Orozco is the professor-in-residence and director of the Immigration Initiative at Harvard. Marcelo Suárez-Orozco is the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston.