Immigrants in the U.S. Are More Educated Than Ever

Immigrants coming to the United States are better educated than ever before, according to a new study. The study, which was conducted by the non-partisan think tank Pew Research Center, examined how many of our nation’s 44 million immigrants possess upper level degrees. As of 2016, 17.2% of immigrants age 25 and over have earned a bachelor’s degree, while an additional 12.8% have earned a post-graduate degree. Compare that to the immigrants coming to our shores in 1980, when only 7% of them held a bachelor’s degree and 8.7% held a post-graduate degree.

[See Education Levels of U.S. Immigrants Are on the Rise, by Jens Manuel Krogstad and Jynnah Radford,, 14.Sept.18.]

The study also found that more than 50% of immigrants born in South and East Asia, including those from China and India, possess an advanced degree. And, since more immigrants living and working in the U.S. are coming from South and East Asia than any other region, we are reaping considerable benefits from this highly educated immigrant demographic.

The Pew Research Center partially attributes the rise of educated immigrants in the U.S. to two nonimmigrant visa programs designed to funnel them into our workforce. Every year, thousands of foreign nationals enter the country pursuant to the H1B program, which has minimum educational requirements. In addition, those who attend university in F-1 status also have the option to supplement their education after graduation with optional practical training (OPT), which allows them to temporarily work in a field related to their course of study. The Pew Research Center estimates that over 1.5 million nonimmigrant students participated in OPT from 2004 to 2016. Many of them go on to successfully change over to H1B status, ensuring that the best and brightest foreign talent is joining our labor pool. [See Number of Foreign College Students Staying and Working in the U.S. After Graduation Surges, by Neil G. Ruiz and Abby Budiman,, 10.May.18.]

But our competitive visa programs are only part of the picture. International education systems have improved exponentially over the past few decades, and global literacy rates for people 15 and over have skyrocketed from 56% in 1980 to 85% in 2014. The result of this newfound focus on academics across the world is that a larger ratio of immigrants are arriving to the United States having already earned an advanced degree.

An important footnote in the Pew Research Center study is the conclusion that immigrants are about as equally educated as their U.S. born counterparts, with 30% of immigrants holding a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2016 compared to 31.6% of those born in the U.S. This seems to challenge the pervasive misconception that immigrants are here to “steal” jobs. In reality, they are buttressing a native-born workforce in an era where STEM related jobs, and the advanced degrees they require, are an essential element of our economy. And the United States has certainly benefited mightily from the contributions of highly skilled immigrants. Our STEM industries generate billions of dollars in profit a year, and our tech hubs in San Francisco and Seattle are ground zero for global innovation.


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