Eric Ruark's picture


  by  Eric Ruark

In an article published on National Review’s website on September 29, Reihan Salam noted the transformation brought about by post-1965 immigration, and he understands why much attention has been paid to the changing demographics of the country. But his argument is that the “far more consequential effect of the post-1965 wave has been the increase in the number of U.S. residents with low levels of literacy and numeracy (i.e. “Readin’, ‘Ritin’, and ’Rithmetic”).

Using, among other sources, the recent Pew report on the immigration surge over the last 50 years (something also discussed in a new CIS report), Salam pointed to statistics that show “immigration policy appears to have had a modestly negative effect on the average skill level in the U.S., even though younger immigrants have somewhat stronger skills than their older counterparts.”

Compared to the foreign-born population in 1970, the proportion of the immigrant population in 2013 who had at least a 9th grade education increased by just over 20 percent (61% to 85%), as did those who had at least a bachelor’s degree (20% to 41%). In 2013, 18 percent of the foreign-born population had a post-graduate degree, compared to 11 percent in 1970. Furthermore, recent immigrants are more likely to possess a bachelor’s or an advanced college degree than are the native-born.

At first glance, this may all seem very straightforward. The U.S. economy today demands workers with more skills than it did 50 years ago, and so our immigration system reflects that. More immigrants with more education should raise the average skill level, especially with the addition of 59 million immigrants since 1965. Why hasn’t that happened.

In order to account for the fact that more recent immigrants are more educated than their older cohort, yet that isn’t reflected in improved skill levels overall, Salam borrows the phrase from Harvard Kennedy School economist Lant Pritchett that “schoolin’ ain’t learnin.” Salam explains that, not surprisingly, the educational systems in different countries differ. He uses the example of Lebanon and Qatar:

Though a Lebanese immigrant and a Qatari immigrant to the U.S. might have had the same number of years of schooling, the Lebanese immigrant will probably have a stronger command of the skills that education is meant to impart than the Qatari immigrant will. Immigrants to the U.S. come from a wide range of countries, and the quality of local schools varies dramatically across these countries….It is simply not the case that earning a high-school diploma means the same thing whether one earns it in Qatar or Lebanon, Indonesia or Australia.

Salam’s explanation is good, even if a bit truncated. While the above would hold true for graduate of foreign universities, what about the ever-growing number of foreign students who graduate from U.S. universities. It is safe to argue that as a group they have the same quality of education as a native-born student who attends college in the United States. Salam didn’t tackle the subject, but Dr. Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis, had done extensive research in that area. Matloff found that foreign students who gradate from U.S. universities aren’t superior to native graduates, but they are preferred by employers because they are a cheaper alternative. So, too, are the 700,000 guest workers a year who are not the “the best and brightest” but are used in many cases to drive down wages in computer science fields. There are numerous stories about how companies are laying off American workers after they train their less-costly guest worker replacements (Disney and Toys “R” Us being two high-profile examples).

More importantly, to simply point out that today’s immigrants are better educated than those in 1970 ignores the fact that Americans are also now more likely to go to college than forty-five years ago. And, while immigrants are more likely than their native-born counterparts to have a bachelor’s or advanced degree, this also has been true going back to 1970. What has changed is that immigration has increased three-fold since 1970, so there are many more immigrants at both ends of the skill spectrum. In 2013, 23 percent of immigrants in 2013 did not have a high school diploma – and 15 percent had only gotten through the 9th grade.

Another thing that has changed is the relative value of a college degree in today’s economy. An employer may be very reluctant to hire a candidate who doesn’t have a college degree, or in some cases an advanced degree, but having a degree today doesn’t mean what it did in 1970. And many foreign students enroll in U.S. colleges in order to gain access to the market. Others come on a student visa with the intent on staying after that visa expires because they know visa overstayers are not an "enforcement priority." The argument that “schoolin’ ain’t learning” no doubt comes into play here. When the large numbers of unskilled immigrants that are still coming into the country, both legally and illegally, are added in, the picture comes more into focus.

Salam point to statistics from the Migration Policy Institute that show:

…immigrants represent 33 percent of adults with low levels of literacy and 24 percent of adults with low levels of numeracy, despite the fact that the foreign-born share of the working-age population is only 15 percent… Rather remarkably, 22 percent of college-educated natives and 54 percent of college-educated immigrants were less than proficient in literacy. To some extent, this could reflect the fact that [the test] evaluates literacy in English. But there appears to be more to this dramatic gap in literacy between college-educated natives and college-educated immigrants.

Salam did not pursue the issue of language, though he has tackled it issue in the past. This is arguably the most important determinant of how well an immigrant integrates into the economy. Even if a foreign country has a good education system, being fluent in English is still of paramount importance in most occupations in the United States. Granted, some skills are more transferable across language barriers than others, but not being proficient in English is clearly a professional hindrance.

Like the utility of language, there is a cultural currency that helps one succeed in an economic setting, which differ from country to country the same way as do educational systems. Salam has written about this before, as well as the value of having kin and community networks to utilize.

There is much to explore in the issues Salam raises, and real reason to be concerned about the long-term economic effects of the current immigration system. Without question, the changes made to immigration law in 1965 have transformed the demographic make-up of this country, but Salam urges us to avoid a a superficial treatment of the topic. For Salam, the all-important question is “Which immigration policy will best serve the interests of America’s diverse post-1965 population, and in particular of our multiracial working class?” NumbersUSA can answer that question.

ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA

Unnecessary Worker Visas
Low-skilled Americans
High-skilled Americans

Updated: Mon, Jul 24th 2017 @ 3:28pm EDT

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