Second-generation immigrants do better in school than the rest of their families

Facing the world, with optimism.
Facing the world, with optimism.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

recent study reveals that second-generation immigrant students perform better in academics than first-generation and even third-generation immigrant students.

Second-generation immigrant students were found to outperform first-generation students on standardized tests. They also earned better grades than their third-generation peers.

For decades, researchers have pointed to a phenomenon known as the “immigrant paradox,” which meant that immigrant kids start to show risky behaviors involving increased drug use and violence over successive generations.

It was unclear, however, whether this “immigrant paradox” also applied to education.

We compiled research of the past five decades and found that, perhaps as a result of optimistic attitudes of their immigrant parents and having access to more resources than their first-generation peers, the second generation of immigrants performs better in school than the first generation.

In doing our research at the University of Washington, we reviewed articles and books and also searched for data not published in traditional venues, including conference presentations, master’s theses, and doctoral dissertations.

We believe this is the first comprehensive review that has been done on immigrant achievement.

Immigrant advantage favors the second generation

According to the US Census Bureau, immigrants make up 25% of the US population that is younger than 18 years.

Immigrants face several disadvantages, including access to good education as the public schools they often go to are not the best ones. Immigrant children are also more likely to live in poverty and experience discrimination.

Our comprehensive review found that, despite these disadvantages, immigrant students were doing well in school.

The advantage favored second-generation immigrants (students born in the US with at least one foreign-born parent) over both first-generation (students born outside the US) and third-or-later-generation students (those born in the US with US-born parents).

Second-generation students outperformed first-generation students on standardized tests and third-generation immigrants on school grades.

This could be because first generation students work hard on their homework but their limited English proficiency makes it difficult to understand test questions.

The advantage on both grades and test scores seems relatively small, from a purely statistical lens: about a 0.16 point difference in GPA or a 20-point difference on an SAT sub-test. But, in fact, it is quite significant.

Studies have shown that a score increase of 20 points on the SAT math subject test could significantly improve a student’s chances of admission to a college.

Immigrant advantage stronger for Asian Americans

However, this immigrant advantage differs from community to community. An important contribution of the project is that we identified some of the factors that explain the diverse range of outcomes among immigrant students.

For instance, the immigrant advantage was stronger for Asian-American youth than for other immigrants, perhaps because many Asian immigrants come to the US with more resources than other groups. Oddly, the advantage was also stronger among poorer communities.

Overall, we believe immigrant students perform better likely because of their positive values. Immigrants compare their situations to those still living in their native country, allowing them to be positive about their situation. The sacrifices that their parents have made to give them a better life, as well as high expectations from parents also motivate their achievements.

At the same time, risk factors that take a toll on the engagement and achievement of non-immigrant youths—such as poorly resourced, violent, and segregated schools—also take a toll on the engagement and achievement of immigrant youths.

And as we know, immigrant youth are highly diverse in their English proficiency, language and culture of origin, parental education, as well as their socioeconomic background. Some immigrant children have a high exposure to these risk factors.

Yet, our findings also point to overall resilience among these children.

Understanding the sources of motivation among immigrant youth can help identify factors that could be checking their growth and help us promote their success.