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Narrowing the Skills Gap: Equipping Immigrant-Origin Workers with Postsecondary Credentials
Commentaries
November 2021

Narrowing the Skills Gap: Equipping Immigrant-Origin Workers with Postsecondary Credentials

Photo of woman walking around a school campus.
iStock.com/RyanJLane

It is widely recognized that earning a high-quality academic or industry-recognized professional credential after high school is a prerequisite to achieving economic and social mobility. College degrees, educational certificates, industry certifications, and government-issued occupational licenses in general improve graduates’ wages and career trajectories. Yet 28 million immigrant-origin adults in the United States, that is, immigrants or the U.S.-born children of immigrants, lack such a postsecondary credential, as do tens of millions of other U.S. residents, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates.

Ensuring access to these credentials should be a pillar of the nation’s immigrant integration policy as it holds the promise of not only bettering these individuals’ livelihoods and lives but also of narrowing the labor market’s skills gap and promoting equity. It is not surprising, then, that policymakers and philanthropic interests have focused over the past decade on reducing the pool of U.S. adults without a postsecondary credential. At the state level, 46 states have set numeric goals for increasing the share of residents with postsecondary credentials. At the federal level, the attainment goal has spurred proposals that range from making Pell grants available to those seeking a short-term occupational credential, to making institutions accountable for the quality of programs they offer and to the now apparently shelved Biden administration proposal to make community college free.

Related Data Tool and Definitions

A related interactive data tool provides data on the numbers and shares of immigrant-origin adults who lack postsecondary credentials by state and age group. The tool also displays the racial and ethnic composition of immigrant-origin adults without postsecondary credentials by state. The tool offers downloadable data tables that provide state-level estimates of adults lacking postsecondary credentials by immigrant generation and by race/ethnicity.

What Is a Credential

There are almost 968,000 unique credentials that comprise the constantly evolving, complex, and often confusing U.S. credentialing system. Credentials act as a verification of the competence of the holder (with these credentials issued by third parties such as a university, specific industry, or a government agency). Examples of credentials include degree credentials such as associate’s or bachelor’s degrees and non-degree credentials such as certificates (home health aide certificate or pharmacy technician certificate, for example), industry certifications (e.g., Cisco Certified Network Associate or Certified Welder certification), apprenticeship certificates (for example, software development engineer apprentice), and occupational licenses (e.g., for commercial truck drivers or licensed practical nurses). Typically, the length of time required to earn a non-degree credential is much shorter than a degree credential.

Pell Grant Eligibility

Not all postsecondary credentials are eligible for federal grants or loans. For instance, only programs with at least 600 credit hours (15 weeks) qualify for Pell Grants, which are needs-based grants for low-income and working students. Students enrolled in some career and technical training programs requiring between 300 and 600 hours (10 to 15 weeks) can receive federal loans, but not grants. Whether Pell Grant eligibility should be extended to these short-term programs is a matter of current debate.

These policy proposals reflect a recognition of both demographic and labor market changes. The aging of the U.S. population and slowed population growth mean a smaller pool of available workers now and ahead. Worker productivity will depend on aligning their competencies with available jobs: positions that increasingly demand higher skill levels. As the COVID-19 pandemic has once again shown, some workers—women, immigrants, Latinos, and Blacks—are disproportionately vulnerable to economic downturns. MPI analysis of labor force participation and unemployment data shows that there is a broad overlap between these vulnerable workers and adults lacking postsecondary credentials. Many of these adults face job or wage losses resulting from the pandemic and automation and would benefit from retraining and upskilling opportunities and the acquisition of new, marketable credentials. Automation, digitization, artificial intelligence (AI), and now the pandemic are drastically reshaping the U.S. labor market and accelerating the demand for higher-skilled jobs. Estimates suggest that more than 80 percent of today’s jobs require more than a high school education. The question is whether today’s workers are prepared to keep up with the trends.

The number of U.S. adults who could benefit from efforts to boost postsecondary credential attainment is strikingly large. Nearly 96 million working-age U.S. adults lack a postsecondary credential, according to an MPI analysis of January-August 2021 monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) from the U.S. Census Bureau. (The study population includes civilian adults ages 16-64 with less than an associate’s degree, those without a professional certification or license, and those without a high school diploma who were not enrolled in school at the time of the survey.) Adults without postsecondary credentials represent almost half of all adults 16 to 64.

Given that immigrant-origin adults will drive nearly all net future labor force growth, the population’s characteristics and the opportunities and barriers they face should be a policy priority at federal and state levels. MPI research exploring the size, geographic distribution, and racial and ethnic composition of the immigrant-origin adult population without postsecondary credentials finds:

  • 49 percent of all immigrant-origin adults ages 16-64 lack a postsecondary credential.
  • Immigrants rather than their U.S.-born children represent the largest share, accounting for about 18.5 million (65 percent) of the 28.2 million immigrant-origin adults without a postsecondary credential. Their U.S.-born adult children (the second generation) represent the remaining 9.7 million.
  • 59 percent of immigrant adults lacking a postsecondary credential in 2019 were Limited English Proficient (LEP), that is, they reported speaking English less than very well on the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS).
  • Immigrant-origin adults without postsecondary credentials are overwhelmingly non-White. Nationwide, Latinos make up 65 percent of immigrant-origin adults without such credentials; Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), 14 percent; and Blacks, 7 percent.
  • The population’s racial and ethnic composition varies markedly across states. While Latinos account for at least half of immigrant-origin adults without postsecondary credentials in 30 states, Blacks make up 38 percent of these adults in the District of Columbia, and significant shares in Minnesota (25 percent), Maryland (22 percent), and Florida (17 percent). AAPIs represent 87 percent of immigrant-origin adults without postsecondary credentials in Hawaii, 59 percent in Alaska, and 28 percent in Minnesota. White adults make up close to 70 percent of uncredentialed immigrant-origin adults in Vermont, about 60 percent in Montana and Maine, and 48 percent in Michigan.
  • The lack of postsecondary credentials is a major challenge for Latino adults from immigrant families. While 47 percent of all U.S. adults ages 16-64 do not have a postsecondary credential, the share is significantly higher among immigrant-origin Latinos (67 percent). Notably, other immigrant-origin groups are less likely to be lack credentials.

Figure 1. Share of Adults (ages 16 to 64) without Postsecondary Credentials, by Immigrant Origin and by Race/Ethnicity, 2021

Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) tabulation of monthly Current Population Survey (CPS), January to August 2021 combined, collected by the U.S. Census Bureau for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Microdata accessed via IPUMS-CPS, University of Minnesota, www.ipums.org, October 1, 2021.

  • Immigrant-origin adults without postsecondary credentials are concentrated in the six traditional immigrant-receiving states: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey, which account for 62 percent of this population. California stands out: it has by far the largest number of immigrant-origin adults without such credentials (7.2 million). They make up 58 percent of all California adults lacking postsecondary credentials—well in excess of the immigrant-origin share of 30 percent nationally.

  • At the same time, immigrant-origin adults make up at least 20 percent of state populations lacking credentials across half of U.S. states. To illustrate, immigrant-origin adults in three New England states—Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut—represent over 30 percent of those states’ populations without credentials.

These data make clear that immigrant-origin adults represent a demographically important portion of U.S. population without postsecondary credentials. Given that this population is more likely to be composed of racial and ethnic minorities, enabling immigrant-origin adults to attain credentials beyond a high school diploma is vital to both building a skilled workforce and closing equity gaps.

Of course, all credentials are not equally valued in the labor market. The firm Burning Glass has found that while there are nearly 2,500 distinct industry certifications (for example, certifications by the American Welding Society or the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence), just 50 account for two-thirds of all employer requests. In other words: some postsecondary credentials are far more valuable than others. Indeed studies show some credentials are a waste of time and money as they do not lead to better jobs or wages; as a result, they do not serve as building blocks (or “stackable credentials”) that lead to higher skills or wages. Research also shows that racial minorities are more likely to obtain credentials that have lower economic returns. Immigrant-origin adults—most of whom are racial minorities and many with limited English proficiency—may be at a disadvantage in navigating the U.S. education and training systems. As a result, policies intended to boost credential attainment, such as expanding Pell grants to programs that provide short-term, workforce credentials, should disaggregate vulnerable immigrant-origin populations (such as those who are Limited English Proficient) in accountability measures. This will mean assessing enrollees’ completion rates along with their earnings and employment outcomes. The results could then be incorporated into policymakers’ decisions to publicize, and perhaps even sanction, programs that fail to meet the needs of immigrant-origin populations.