LOS ANGELES — An extraordinary demographic shift is sweeping through U.S. university campuses as immigrants and children of immigrants become an ever-larger share of student bodies, with implications for the future of the country’s work force, higher education and efforts to reduce racial and economic inequality.
A new study released on Thursday found that more than 5.3 million students, or nearly 30 percent of all students enrolled in colleges and universities in 2018, hailed from immigrant families, up from 20 percent in 2000. The population of so-called immigrant-origin students grew much more than that of U.S.-born students of parents also born in the United States, accounting for 58 percent of the increase in the total number of students in higher education during that period.
These students, most of them nonwhite, are the offspring of Indians who came to study in the United States and stayed; the children of Latin Americans who crossed the border for blue-collar jobs; and some whose families fled civil wars around the world as refugees.
“In higher education, we are producing and training the future work force. That future work force has more students from immigrant families than previously understood,” said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a group of college and university officials that commissioned the study from the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
Studies have shown that college graduates earn $1 million more over their lifetime than those with a high school degree. They also have better health outcomes, are more civically engaged and have an overall better quality of life.
“Accessing higher education enables immigrant students to achieve their dreams, and it becomes an economic and social mobility generator, benefiting themselves, their children and the country,” said Ms. Feldblum, a former dean of Pomona College in California.
In California, immigrants or children of immigrants accounted for about half of enrolled students in 2018. In eight states, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Washington, they represented 30 percent to 40 percent of the student body. And in 32 states, at least 20,000 students from immigrant families were pursuing degrees, from associate and bachelor’s degrees to master’s and doctorate degrees.
An overwhelming majority of immigrant-origin students are U.S. citizens or legal residents. But they are likely to face barriers and limits on resources that many other students do not.
“Going into the college process, these students themselves or their families may not have a lot of knowledge about navigating college applications and the financial aid process,” said Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at Migration Policy Institute and the lead author of the report.
Once immigrant-origin students are in school, their dropout rates tend to be higher because many come from poor households.
“They juggle multiple responsibilities, which makes it more challenging for them to stay in school and complete their degrees on time,” Ms. Batalova said. “If there is a health or family emergency, they lack a safety net to fall