On average, the educational aspirations of immigrant children are exceeding those of working-class Americans. While there is much variation within ethnic groups in America, survey data and interviews detailed in “The Asian American Achievement Paradox” by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou show an upward educational trajectory for second generation immigrants.
In their research on Asian-American students, Lee and Zhou also conducted in-depth interviews with working class white and second generation Mexican students.
In contrast to Asian immigrants, the original Mexican immigrants into the U.S. had a lower level of education (5 percent of adults with a bachelor’s degree) than the general population in Mexico (17 percent). Considering this lower starting point, the academic success of their children in the U.S. represents a much larger intergenerational leap than is made by white or Asian-American children.
While they do not face continuous pressure from family to attend college, second generation Mexican immigrants feel enormously successful since they do not measure their success against Asian or white classmates, but against how far they have come from their parents’ status. Skilled industrial work, an associates degree, etc. is a large jump, and many are now aspiring to more higher education.
Until recently, helping-to-support-their-family was the primary reason for two-thirds of young Hispanics getting a job or entering the military directly after high school. Nevertheless, more-and-more Hispanic students are now entering and succeeding in college despite lack of an ethnic success frame that demands they get a higher education, which Asian students face.
The number of 18-24-year-old Hispanic students who dropped out of high school has declined from 35 percent in 1995 to 12 percent in 2014. At the same time, college enrollment has risen from 22 percent to 35 percent, a 13 percent increase compared to 9 percent for Asian students, 8 percent for black students, and only 5 percent for whites. However, Hispanic students still fall behind all other ethnic groups in completing a four-year degree, mainly due to the cost of attending a 4-year school full time.
Pew Research data also show nearly half of Hispanic students attend two-year community colleges, a much higher rate than any other group. Only 22 percent of Hispanic students have student debt, compared to 42 percent for white students and 40 percent for black students.
A Pew Survey also found that Hispanic parents place a higher value on a college degree compared with white parents, with 86 percent saying it is very important or extremely important while only 67 percent of white parents responded the same.
Lee and Zhou’s extensive interviews found “...working class whites specify that education does not define success.... Because both middle- and working-class whites embrace individualism, they do not measure their success against others.” Instead, their success frame is “...supporting oneself and one’s family and never having to rely on others for financial assistance.”
They found that usually “...working class white children decide for themselves at the age of eighteen whether to attend college or get a job.”
However, a smaller population of affluent whites do make college-going an expectation for their children, and their financial resources remove much of the student stress of gaining entry into an elite school.
Today, first-generation Mexican immigrants fill many low-skill jobs that other Americans simply will not do. But their second generation, along with “overachieving” Asian students, have more faith in higher education than white working-class Americans, who have the lowest average rate of belief in the value of a college or university education.
John Richard Schrock is a distinguished professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Emporia State University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org