Public Release: 

High school grads from immigrant families succeed

University of California - Los Angeles

UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute researchers find high school graduates from immigrant families succeed in college at similar rates as American-born peers with similar economic and ethnic backgrounds. Students from immigrant families also are more likely to support their families while in school.

In addition, high school graduates from immigrant families with higher incomes and higher levels of parent education achieved the highest success in college. This finding helps to explain lower levels of success seen among Latin American children compared with East Asian children.

Appearing in the summer edition of the peer-reviewed Journal of Research on Adolescence, the study is among the first to examine the success of immigrant children in post-secondary education. The William T. Grant Foundation and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development funded the research.

"The United States has experienced a tremendous wave of immigration over the past 30 years. The ability of the children of immigrants to find educational success beyond high school is critical to their economic integration into American society," said Dr. Andrew J. Fuligni, the paper's co-author and senior research scientist at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute's Center for Culture and Health.

"Our overall findings are encouraging," he said. "But there are signs that certain segments of the immigrant population, particularly those from Latin America, need more assistance to participate fully in educational and related economic opportunities available in the United States."

Children from immigrant families currently comprise 20 percent of the population of children in the United States. These children face unique challenges to their educational success compared with those from American-born families. For example, adolescents from immigrant families must attempt to negotiate American schools without benefit of parents raised in this society. In addition, these children often are members of ethnic minority groups on whom the dominant society frequently projects negative stereotypes and diminished expectations.

The UCLA researchers sought to examine the post-secondary educational progress of an ethnically diverse group of youth from immigrant families, and to explore how these youth balanced the demands of school, home and work after high school.

The team gathered data on the post-secondary experiences of about 650 San Francisco Bay area youth from a variety of ethnic and generational backgrounds. Youth completed questionnaires and provided official school records in the 12th grade, and participated in a phone interview three years later.

Among other specific findings:

  • 96 percent of the children of East Asian immigrant families who graduated from high school enrolled in post-secondary school, compared with 63 percent of children from Latin American immigrant families.

  • 47 percent of children from Latin American immigrant families provided financial support to their families, compared with 20 percent of East Asian immigrant children.

  • Although children from Latin American immigrant families exhibited less post-secondary success than other groups, they still did better than would have been predicted from their economic background, testifying to their motivation to succeed despite the many challenges that they face.

Fuligni intends to continue following the academic success of these young adults to see how well they maintain the delicate balance of attending school while supporting their families.

Fuligni is an associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. His co-author, Melissa Witkow, is a graduate student in the UCLA department of psychology.

The UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute is an interdisciplinary research and education institute devoted to the understanding of complex human behavior, including the genetic, biological, behavioral and sociocultural underpinnings of normal behavior, and the causes and consequences of neuropsychiatric disorders.

The institute's Center for Culture and Health is an interdisciplinary research center composed of anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists and other biobehavioral social scientists whose research focuses on the impact of social and cultural factors on mental health, human development, and mental retardation and developmental disabilities.

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