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College-Educated Immigrants in the United States

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College-Educated Immigrants in the United States

Students at the University of Hawai‘i–West O‘ahu prepare to graduate during the spring commencement ceremony.

A university graduation ceremony. (Photo: University of Hawai‘i–West O‘ahu)

U.S. employment projections point to a greater demand for workers with higher levels of education and skills in the future. Nationwide, state governments, philanthropic organizations, businesses, and other public and private actors have launched initiatives to boost the number and share of U.S. residents going to college and gaining greater skills and credentials. Immigrants make up an important source of these higher-educated workers. As of 2018, 17 percent of college-educated U.S. adults ages 25 and older were born abroad. Thirty-two percent of all immigrant adults (12.6 million people) had a bachelor’s degree or higher, similar to the 33 percent rate among U.S.-born adults. And the university-educated share for immigrants is rising among the recently arrived, with 47 percent of those arriving in the last five years having a college degree.

The United States long has been a destination of choice for higher-educated immigrants and those looking to receive a college education, thanks to its robust and dynamic economy, world-acclaimed universities and research facilities, and opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship. These immigrants have come on various temporary visas for high-skilled workers, as international students and researchers, as well as family members of U.S. residents.

The rise in global levels of education has created a larger pool of higher-educated individuals, many of whom have sought new opportunities in the United States. Facilitated by changing immigration policies and global educational trends, the number of immigrants with higher levels of education in the United States has grown rapidly since 1990: The college-educated immigrant population increased 87 percent between 1990 and 2000, 57 percent between 2000 and 2010, and a further 38 percent between 2010 and 2018 (see Figure 1). The native-born, college-educated population also has grown, but at a slower pace over the same periods: by 33 percent, 26 percent, and 24 percent, respectively. The faster growth of the high-skilled immigrant population means that their share of all college-educated adults in the United States also has increased over the last three  decades, from 10 percent in 1990 to 17 percent in 2018.

Figure 1. Number of College-Educated Adults (Ages 25 and Older) in the United States by Nativity, 1990-2018

Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 1990 and 2000 Decennial Census and 2010 and 2018 American Community Survey (ACS).

In 2018, immigrants accounted for 17 percent of all civilian employed workers. However, they represented much higher shares of workers in occupations that typically require a college degree, including 45 percent of software developers, 42 percent of physical scientists, and 29 percent of physicians. The presence of highly skilled immigrants in the U.S. labor market may diminish, at least in the near future, in response to factors including significant Trump administration policy changes that have limited U.S. companies’ ability to hire foreign workers, increased scrutiny for work and international student visas, and made it more difficult to gain permanent residence (e.g., obtain a green card). Another reason relates to concerted efforts by other high-income countries over the past decade to attract and retain highly skilled immigrant workers. Finally, mobility restrictions and some prospective migrants’ unwillingness to relocate due to the coronavirus pandemic may persist even after a vaccine becomes available.

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau (the most recent 2018 American Community Survey [ACS]), Institute of International Education (IIE), and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), this Spotlight provides a brief demographic and socioeconomic profile of the U.S.- and foreign-born (ages 25 and older) civilian population with at least a bachelor’s degree (referred as “college educated,” “college graduates,” or “highly skilled”) and highlights recent trends in and characteristics of international students and H-1B specialty occupation workers.

Definitions

Civilian college-educated immigrants are defined as immigrant adults ages 25 and older with a bachelor's degree and higher who are not in the military.

“Foreign born” and “immigrant" are used interchangeably and refer to persons with no U.S. citizenship at birth. This population includes naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents, refugees and asylees, persons on certain temporary visas, and the unauthorized population.

Civilian labor force includes civilian individuals ages 25 and older who were either employed or unemployed but in search of work in the week prior to participation in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Geographic Distribution

Similar to the overall immigrant population, college-educated immigrants are concentrated in a handful of states. In 2018, California had the largest number immigrants with college degrees, with approximately 2.9 million (or 23 percent of all college-educated immigrants in the United States), followed by New York (1.3 million, or 10 percent), Florida (1.2 million, or 9 percent), and Texas (1.1 million, or 9 percent) (see Table 1). These four states accounted for 51 percent of the 12.6 million immigrant college graduates in the country. The next six states—New Jersey (6 percent); Illinois (4 percent); and Massachusetts, Virginia, Washington, and Maryland (about 3 percent apiece)—accounted for another 22 percent.

Table 1. Ten U.S. States with the Largest College-Educated Immigrant Populations, 2018

Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2018 ACS.

While the immigrant share of all college-educated adults was 17 percent at the national level, it was much higher in California (31 percent), New Jersey (29 percent), New York (26 percent), Florida (25 percent), and Nevada (22 percent) (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Immigrant Share of College-Educated Adults (Ages 25 and Older) by State, (%), 2018

Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2018 ACS.

Age, Race and Ethnicity, and Country of Origin

Immigrant college graduates are younger and more likely to be of prime working age (25 to 54) than their native-born counterparts. In 2018, 70 percent of college-educated immigrants were younger than 55 years old, compared to 61 percent of those born in the United States (see Table 2).

Table 2. Age Distribution of College-Educated Adults (Ages 25 and Older) by Nativity, 2018

Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2018 ACS.

Non-Latino Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) immigrants accounted for 47 percent of the total college-educated, foreign-born population, followed by non-Latino Whites (26 percent) and Latinos (18 percent). In contrast, an overwhelming majority of native-born, college-educated individuals were White (82 percent), while minorities, particularly AAPI and Latino adults, were under-represented (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. College-Educated Foreign- and Native-Born Adults (Ages 25 and Older), by Race and Ethnicity, 2018

Notes: According to U.S. Census Bureau definitions, the term Latino includes all individuals who identified as Latino, regardless of race. Non-Latino Blacks refers to those who identified as “Black alone” or in combination with other races. Non-Latino AAPI individuals include people who identified as Asians or Pacific Islanders alone or in combination with other races, excluding non-Latino Blacks. Non-Latino White refers to those who reported either “White only,” individuals who identified as "other race only,” “other race and White,” and “unspecified multiracial.”

Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2018 ACS.

In 2018, the top four countries of origin for all college-educated immigrants were India (15 percent), China (including Hong Kong, about 8 percent), the Philippines (7 percent), and Mexico (6 percent) (see Table 3). These four countries were also the top senders of immigrant college graduates who arrived between 2013 and 2018, but the foreign born from India and China represented higher shares among these recent arrivals (24 percent and 10 percent, respectively) while those from the Philippines and Mexico accounted for slightly lower shares (5 percent and 4 percent, respectively). Several countries gained in prominence in their share of recently arrived college-educated immigrants: Venezuela ranked fifth (versus 18th among all immigrants with a college degree); Brazil ranked ninth (versus 19th). France, the Dominican Republic, and Bangladesh were among the top 20 countries for recently arrived college-educated immigrants, while they were not on the overall list for the countries with the most immigrant college graduates in the United States.

Table 3. Top 20 Countries of Birth for All College-Educated Immigrants and Those Who Arrived within the Past Five Years, 2018

Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2018 ACS.

English Proficiency and Education

College-educated immigrants in 2018 were more likely be fully English proficient than in the past. The share who reported speaking English only or speaking English “very well” was 71 percent in 2000; it went up to 73 percent in 2010 and to 75 percent in 2018. Immigrants with a college degree as of 2018 were also much more proficient in English than immigrant adults without a four-year college degree (75 percent versus 40 percent, respectively).

College-educated immigrants are more likely to have advanced degrees than their U.S.-born counterparts. In 2018, 14 percent of immigrant college graduates held professional or doctoral degrees, compared to 10 percent of their U.S.-born counterparts. Both groups were almost equally likely to have a master’s degree (29 percent for the foreign born and 27 percent for the native born).

Regardless of nativity, most college-educated adults have spouses who are also highly educated. However, immigrant college graduates are slightly more likely to have college-educated spouses than their U.S.-born counterparts: Seventy percent of college-educated immigrant adults and 63 percent of their U.S.-born counterparts in 2018 were married to people with a bachelor’s degree or higher (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Educational Attainment of Spouses of the College Educated, by Nativity, 2018

Note: Refers to married college-educated heads of households ages 25 and older with spouses present at home. Spouses can be of any age.

Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2018 ACS.

Employment and Occupation

Prior to the major labor dislocations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, college-educated immigrants were almost as likely to be in the labor force as their native-born counterparts (75 percent and 74 percent, respectively) in 2018. Both groups were more likely to participate in the labor force than immigrant and U.S.-born adults without a college degree (67 percent and 58 percent, respectively). Unemployment rates in general were very low in 2018. College-educated immigrants were slightly less likely to be unemployed than immigrants without college degrees (3 percent versus 4 percent). Among U.S.-born adults, 2 percent of college graduates were unemployed compared to 5 percent of those without this level of education.

In August 2020 the unemployment rate of college-educated adults, regardless of nativity, was lower than that of workers without a four-year college education. At the same time, the unemployment rate of immigrant college graduates was slightly higher than that of their U.S.-born counterparts (6.5 percent versus 5.4 percent, respectively).

Click here to view unemployment rates by nativity, education, race and ethnicity, and industry since January 2019.

College-educated immigrant workers are more likely than their native-born counterparts to be in high-tech, science, and engineering occupations. In 2018, 12 percent of college-educated immigrants were employed in computer and mathematics occupations versus 5 percent of their U.S.-born counterparts. The top five occupational groups for immigrant college graduates were management (15 percent), computer and mathematical occupations (12 percent), health practitioners and technicians (12 percent), business and financial operations (10 percent), and education and related occupations (9 percent). For U.S.-born college graduates, the top five occupation groups were management (17 percent), education and related occupations (14 percent), business and financial operations (11 percent), health practitioners and technicians (10 percent), and sales and related occupations (8 percent).

Although immigrants only accounted for 17 percent of total civilian employed workers in 2018, they represented much higher shares of college-educated workers in certain occupational groups such as health-care support and computer and mathematics occupations (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Immigrant Share of Employed College-Educated Workers by Occupational Group, 2018

Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2018 ACS.

Brain Waste

In 2018, approximately 2.2 million college-educated immigrants in the U.S. labor market were either unemployed or working in low-skilled jobs including as dishwashers, security guards, or taxi drivers (see Table 4), often because of difficulty getting their credentials recognized or other hurdles. This situation represents a waste of human capital (also referred to as “brain waste”) affecting around 23 percent of college-educated immigrants and 18 percent of U.S.-born college graduates.

Click here to view number and share of immigrant and U.S.-born college graduates who are underemployed in the United States and by state in 2018.

Click here to view MPI’s resources on brain waste and the employment pathways of skilled immigrants.

Table 4. Number and Share of College-Educated Adults (Ages 25 and Older) Affected by Brain Waste, 2018

Notes: College-educated adults affected by brain waste are those who are either unemployed or are employed in low-skilled jobs such as construction labor and domestic help.

Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2018 ACS.

Income and Poverty

Overall, the median household income of college-educated immigrants was roughly similar to that for their U.S.-born counterparts ($105,000 versus $100,000). However, college-educated immigrants were somewhat more likely to be in poverty (7 percent versus 4 percent, respectively) due to a combination of factors including larger family sizes, a higher level of underemployment, and a higher likelihood of working part-time. In contrast, 15 percent of the total foreign-born population and 13 percent of the total native-born population lived in poverty.

Definition

Created under the Immigration Act of 1990, the H-1B Temporary Skilled Worker Program is designed to permit certain highly skilled foreign nationals to enter the United States and work for U.S. companies or organizations. To qualify, the prospective U.S. job must be considered a “specialty occupation,” meaning it requires at least a four-year degree in a specialty field. Common specialty occupations include computer professionals, engineers and scientists, financial analysts, management consultants, physicians, university professors, and researchers. It is the most common skill-based employment visa program for college-educated foreign-born individuals in the United States.

The annual cap on initial H-1B visas (valid for up to three years) is set at 85,000, including 20,000 specially designated for those holding advanced degrees from U.S. universities. Institutions of higher education, related or affiliated nonprofit entities, and nonprofit or governmental research organizations are exempted from this cap. There is also no cap on H-1B visas issued for continuing employment.

H1-B Specialty Occupation Workers

The number of total H-1B petitions (which includes initial and continuing employment) filed and approved has fluctuated over the last 15 years in response to both economic trends and policy changes (see Figure 6). Recessions in 2001 and 2008, for instance, significantly decreased demand for H-1B workers in following years. When the economy rebounded, U.S. employers filed for a higher number of petitions.

Detailed data for fiscal year (FY) 2021 had not been released at this writing, but USCIS announced on March 27, 2020 that the agency has received a sufficient number of applications to meet the 85,000 visa cap. It is unclear how many of the prospective H-1B workers with approved petitions who are not already in the United States would be able to arrive to start their job when the new fiscal year begins on October 1, 2020, due to the Trump administration’s COVID-19-prompted suspension of the H-1B program and other temporary worker programs through December 31.

Figure 6. H-1B Petitions Filed and Approved, 2000-19

Notes: The figure refers to approved petitions regardless of when filed. The data exclude about 63,000 petitions submitted but not selected in the computer-generated random lottery in April 2008.

Source: Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Characteristics of Specialty Occupation Workers (H-1B). Washington, DC: DHS, various years.

The H-1B program has been primarily used by information-technology companies, and the share of computer-related workers among all approved H-1B petitions has increased significantly in recent years, reaching a record high of 70 percent in 2017 (see Figure 7). Two-thirds of approved H-1B petitions (256,000) in FY 2019 were for workers in computer-related occupations, mainly systems analysts and programmers.

Figure 7. Share of Computer-Related Workers among All Approved H-1B Petitions, 2004-19

Source: DHS, Characteristics of Specialty Occupation Workers (H-1B), various years.

As of FY 2019, other top occupations of beneficiaries with approved H-1B petitions included those in education, engineering, accounting, administrative services, and physicians and surgeons (see Table 5). However, policy changes such as the disqualification of certain computer programmers from H-1B visa eligibility and an increasing scrutiny on H-1B visas petitioned by IT companies in particular may, over time, tip the composition of occupations of H-1B workers toward a greater share of non-IT workers.

Table 5. Top Ten Occupations of Beneficiaries with Approved H-1B Petitions, FY 2019

Source: DHS, Characteristics of H-1B Specialty Occupation Workers: Fiscal Year 2019 Annual Report to Congress (Washington, DC: DHS), available online.

In FY 2019, almost 72 percent of approved H-1B petitions were for workers from India, followed by those from China, Canada, South Korea, Mexico, the Philippines, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and Pakistan (see Table 6). Together these ten countries accounted for 90 percent of all 388,000 approved petitions.

Table 6. Top Ten Origin Countries of Beneficiaries with Approved H-1B Petitions in FY 2019

Source: DHS, Characteristics of H-1B Specialty Occupation Workers: Fiscal Year 2019 Annual Report to Congress (Washington, DC: DHS), available online.

International Students

The number of international students enrolled in U.S. higher-education institutions more than doubled since 1990, from 408,000 in the 1990-91 school year to 1,095,000 in 2018-19, according to Open Doors data from the Institute of International Education. Over this period, the share of international students enrolled in higher education grew from 2.9 percent to 5.5 percent.

While the total number of international students has been increasing, the growth comes from students who graduated from their programs and are currently pursuing optional practical training (OPT), which allows them to gain work experience in the United States related to their field of study. OPT is a period during which undergraduate and graduate students with F-1 (foreign student) status who have completed or have been pursuing their degrees for more than nine months are permitted by USCIS to work. Most F-1 international students are entitled to a 12-month OPT, and those who studied in qualifying STEM fields are eligible for a 24-month extension.

Approximately 223,000 (or 20 percent of all international students in 2018-19) pursued OPT, more than double the number in 2013-14, when it was 106,000 (or 12 percent of the total 886,000 international students in 2013-14). In contrast, the number of newly enrolled international students has been declining since 2015-16, when it was about 301,000. In 2018-19, 269,000 new international students were enrolled. Higher education administrators are concerned about further decline in the number of international students coming to the United States in the fall of 2020 both due to the pandemic and restrictive immigration policies.

As it is with leading countries of birth of all college-educated immigrants, Asia is the primary sending region of international students in the United States. In the 2018-19 school year, 768,000 students from Asia accounted for 70 percent of the 1.1 million international students enrolled in U.S. higher-education institutions. Mainland China (370,000 or 34 percent) and India (202,000 or 18 percent) accounted for half all international students, with South Korea (52,000), Saudi Arabia (37,000), and Canada (26,000) rounding the top five origin countries.

Engineering, math and computer science, and business and management were the most popular fields of study for international students in 2018-19. Together, they accounted for more than half of the total (56 percent) (see Table 7).

Table 7. International Students in the United States by Field of Study, 2018-19

Note: *Subject is considered a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) field according to the Institute of International Education (IIE).

Source: MPI tabulation of data from IIE, Fields of Study, 2018/19, Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange (New York: IIE, 2019), available online.

In terms of levels of study, undergraduates accounted for 39 percent (432,000) of all international students in 2018-19, followed by graduate students (35 percent or 378,000) and nondegree students (62,000 or 6 percent). Individuals pursuing OPT accounted for the remaining 20 percent.

Sources

Institute of International Education (IIE). 2018. Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. New York: IIE. Available online.

Migration Policy Institute Data Hub. N.d. Educational Attainment of U.S. Adults (ages 25 and over) by Nativity and Country of Birth, 2018. Available online.

Pierce, Sarah and Jessica Bolter. 2020. Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System: A Catalog of Changes under the Trump Presidency. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. Available online.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2020. 2018 American Community Survey. Accessed from Steven Ruggles, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 7.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2020. Available online.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). 2020. 2018 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics. Available online.

---. 2020. H-1B Initial Electronic Registration Selection Process Completed, updated March 27, 2020. Available online.

---. 2020. Characteristics of H-1B Specialty Occupation Workers: Fiscal Year 2019 Annual Report to Congress. Washington, DC: DHS. Available online.