Brookings report shows college-educated immigrants outnumber those without high school diplomas

A Brookings Institute paper released today shows that the share of the immigrant population that has a bachelor’s degree now exceeds the share of the immigrant population that does not have a high-school degree.

The report also finds that of those immigrants who arrived in the United States in the 2000s, more of them had bachelor’s degrees than those without high school degrees, a reversal from the previous decade, when new immigrants were more likely to be without high school diplomas than to have college degrees.

According to Brookings, a plurality of the 100 largest metropolitan areas has significantly more college-educated immigrants than immigrants without high school degrees, and that college-educated immigrants are more likely to be either unemployed or overqualified for their jobs. The Washington Post quotes Steven Camarota of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies who claims that, based on the report’s findings, “we’ve got an oversupply of highly skilled workers” in the United States. But some additional context to the report’s findings shows why this might be a mistake.

Firstly, the report undercounts unauthorized immigrants; the findings are based on the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which as the report points out is estimated by the Department of Homeland Security to be 10 to 20 percent off when it comes to including the undocumented in its calculations. Furthermore, the report also points out that the percentage of immigrants without high school diplomas still exceeds that of native-born workers with diplomas, and the percentage of native-born with college degrees still slightly exceeds that of immigrants with college degrees. This means the U.S. government’s immigration policies still ultimately favor college-educated natives over college-educated immigrants.

An acknowledged weakness in the report’s findings is its reliance on possessing bachelor’s degrees as the defining feature of a “high-skilled” immigrant. A bachelor’s degree is not necessarily a good measure of whether a prospective immigrant possesses the skills necessary to be useful to an employer whose needs are not being met by the native labor market. A recent Migration Policy Institute report (PDF) makes a clear distinction between merely “skilled” workers (“college graduates and other workers who fill primarily entry-level, white-collar jobs”) and “highly skilled” workers (“professionals and advanced degree holders who enhance the human capital pool and help to address mismatches between the supply of and demand for skills”). The latter usually have graduate degrees or advanced technical experience not captured by merely counting the number of immigrants with bachelor’s degrees.

By lumping both skilled and high-skilled categories together, the report fails to specifically address the high demand for workers with particular specializations and graduate-level degrees, frequently mentioned at the MPI panel The American Independent reported on earlier this week. The evidence suggests not an oversupply of skilled workers, but rather an immigration system that is incapable of fine-tuning its visa system based on the particular needs of the economy.