The impact of immigration on the educational attainment of natives

Jennifer Hunt, 17 November 2012



The increase in wage inequality in a large number of developed countries has heightened the importance of ensuring all children complete at least an apprenticeship or 12 years of high school. At the same time, parents in countries with high levels of immigration of low-skilled workers fear that the presence of immigrant children in the classroom lowers the quality of education for native students. If this concern is well founded, rising immigration could reduce native high school graduation rates as the benefit of an addition year of schooling falls. Conversely, immigration-induced changes in labour market incentives for educational attainment could have the opposite effect, as could the presence in the classroom of children of skilled immigrants.

Do immigrants reduce the quality of native education?

There are several ways in which an increase in the number of immigrant students could reduce the quality of native education. If immigrants and natives are taught in the same classes, teachers of some subjects may slow the pace of instruction to accommodate non-native speakers. If immigrant students have had a low quality prior education, or have less education than their native classmates, teachers may lower expectations for all students. Chin et al. (2012) provide evidence for such negative effects by showing that non-Spanish speaking students in Texas have higher test scores when Spanish speakers with limited English proficiency are taught in separate classes rather than in regular classes. This comes despite an associated shift in spending towards Spanish speakers. In other settings, a diversion of financial resources from native students to support the needs of immigrants could lower the quality of native education. For example, Fix and Zimmerman (1993) find that US federal spending earmarked for economically disadvantaged students fell on a per-student basis due to the immigration-induced expansion in the number of eligible children.

Immigrants increase wage inequality at the lower end of the distribution

However, there is a second channel through which low-skill immigration could influence natives’ high school educational attainment. Incentives to complete high school are influenced by the wage structure, which is in turn affected by the entry of immigrant workers (Chiswick 1989). Compared to natives, immigrants to the US are either disproportionately poorly educated or, to some extent, disproportionately highly educated. The effect of immigrants entering the labour market should therefore be to increase wage inequality, especially in the lower half of the native distribution. This wage gap is particularly marked between high school dropouts and high school graduates (Borjas and Katz 2007, Ottaviano and Peri 2012). Thus, the net effect of the changes in the wage structure are likely to increase the wage benefit associated with completing high school, and hence native completion rates.

Immigration’s effects on high school completion rates

In my recent work (Hunt 2012), I examine the impact of US immigration on natives’ completion of 12 years of schooling, comparing results across ethnicity, race and gender. I estimate the net effect of immigration on completion rates, and then separately assess these effects through the two channels described above1.

Empirical approach

I use the US decennial censuses of 1940-2000 and the pooled 2008-2010 American Community Surveys to construct yearly data by state. I then measure the shares of immigrants in the population when natives are aged 11-17, and native educational attainment at ages 21-27. I allow for time-invariant differences across states in high school completion rates, and take into account that an upturn in a state’s unskilled labour market could attract low-skill immigrants as well as induce native students to drop out of high school.

Immigration can negatively affect natives, but barely

I find the net effect of immigration on natives to be small but positive. The increase in immigration in the 1990s caused the 2010 native high school completion rate, which stood at 87.8%, to be 1.3 percentage points higher than it would otherwise have been. I find native-born black people to be more responsive to immigration than natives as a whole. However, as the rate of immigration slowed in regions with more black people, the overall effect is very similar (1.4 percentage points). This is comparable with the completion gap between black people and white people, which was 7.3 percentage points in 2010. I also estimate a small negative net effect for native-born Hispanic people (-1.2 percentage points), but this is not statistically significantly different from zero.

Immigration can be a positive force

If we further distinguish immigrants by age and education, you also find support for immigration improving education through the labour market channel. Again, magnitudes are small. The 1990s increase in adult immigrant dropouts caused a 0.8 percentage point increase in 2010 native completion rates, with larger effects for native-born minorities. That said, the effects of more educated adult immigrants are not precisely estimated.

I find that immigrants have a small negative effect on natives as a whole; the 1990s increase in child immigrants reduced the native completion rate by 0.2 percentage points. The effect on native-born black people is 0.4 percentage points. The results for native-born Hispanic-descended people are more subtle because the effect of immigrant children on education depends strongly on the education of their parents. Native people of  have a moderately sized positive response to the inclusion in the education system of child immigrants of more educated parents and only a moderately sized negative response to child immigrants of poorly educated parents2.

What are the implications?

Immigration to the US has been found to have only a modestly negative effect on the wages of low-skill natives. This is puzzling. One explanation that partially solves the puzzle is that US natives exploit their comparative advantage to avoid competition with immigrants. They do this by shifting to more communication-intensive occupations (Peri and Sparber 2009). My finding that poorly educated natives upgrade their education in response to immigration is another piece that helps solve the puzzle.

The evidence that some child immigrants reduce the educational attainment of some minority natives suggests the need for reform in immigrant education. Reform could include both increased resources for schools in areas with high immigration (Singer 2008) and the implementation of best practices regarding improving language skills of non-native speakers, remedying educational deficiencies of immigrants, and integrating immigrants with native students (García, Kleifgen and Falchi 2008).


Betts, Julian R (1998), “Educational Crowding Out: Do Immigrants Affect the Educational Attainment of American Minorities?”, in Daniel S Hamermesh and Frank D Bean (eds.) Help or Hindrance? The Economic Implications of Immigration for African-Americans, New York, Russell Sage Foundation.

Betts, Julian R and Magnus Lofstrom (2000), “The Educational Attainment of Immigrants: Trends and Implications”, in George J Borjas (ed.), Issues in the Economics of Immigration, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Borjas, George J and Lawrence F Katz (2007), “The Evolution of the Mexican-Born Workforce in the US”, in George J Borjas (ed.) Mexican Immigration to the US, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Chin, Aimee, N Meltem Daysal and Scott A Imberman (2012), “Impact of Bilingual Education Programs on Limited English Proficient Students and Their Peers: Regression Discontinuity Evidence from Texas”, IZA Discussion Paper, 6694.

Chiswick, Carmel U (1989), “The Impact of Immigration on the Human Capital of Natives”, Journal of Labor Economics, 7(4), 464-486.

Eberhard, Juan (2012), “Immigration, Human Capital and the Welfare of Natives”, University of Southern California working paper.

Fix, Michael and Wendy Zimmerman (1993), Educating Immigrant Children: Chapter I in the Changing City, Washington, Urban Institute Press.

García, Ofelia, Jo Anne Kleifgen and Lorraine Falachi (2008), “From English Language Learners to Emergent Bilinguals”, Equity Matters: Research Review No. I, New York, NY, Teachers College, Columbia University, 28 accessed September 2009.

Hunt, Jennifer (2012), “The Impact of Immigration on the Educational Attainment of Natives”, CEPR Discussion Paper, 9170.

Jackson, Osborne (2011), “Does Immigration Crowd Natives Into or Out of Higher Education?”, Northeastern University working paper.

Llull, Joan (2010), “Immigration, Wages and Education: A Labor Market Equilibrium Structural Model”, CEMFI working paper.

Ottaviano, Gianmarco and Giovanni Peri (2012), “Rethinking the Effects of Immigration on Wages”, Journal of the European Economic Association, 10(1), 78-119.

Peri, Giovanni and Chad Sparber (2009), “Task Specialization, Immigration and Wages”, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 1(3), 135-169.

Singer, Audrey (2008), “Reforming US Immigration Policy: Opening New Pathways to Integration”, Opportunity 08: A Project of the Brookings Institution, accessed 29 March 2012.

Smith, Christopher L (2012), “The Impact of Low-Skilled Immigration on the Youth Labor Market”, Journal of Labor Economics, 30(1), 55-89.

1 The most closely related earlier papers, all studying the United States, are Betts (1998), Betts and Lofstrom (2000), Eberhard (2012), Jackson (2011), Llull (2010) and Smith (2012).

2 These effects are present for male Hispanic natives only.

Topics: Education
Tags: education, immigration

Professor of economics, Rutgers University and CEPR Research Fellow