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What the rise in immigrant students means for American colleges

Students from immigrant families now account for almost a third of college students at schools across America.
College students talking on campus.
Posted at 12:03 PM, Aug 09, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-09 12:03:35-04

The changing demographics of America are changing the demographics of college campuses. 

A new report by thePresidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration shows that students from immigrant families now account for almost a third of college students at schools across America.

In 2021, more than 5.6 million students, or 31% of all students enrolled in colleges and universities, were immigrants or the children of immigrants. That’s up from 20% in 2000. 

The changing demographics of the country impact enrollment at colleges around the country. It’s a trend that college administrators are keeping a close eye on. 

“Adapting to changing demographics is critical to both prospective candidates and higher education institutions such as Alfred University,” said Mark Zupan, president of Alfred University in western New York. “For students from immigrant families, higher education is a vital vehicle to promote opportunity and social mobility. For our University, we are particularly interested in identifying candidates with the right grit and curiosity who will blossom at Alfred. Anyone from a family that has been willing to move several thousand miles to this country is much more likely to also have the grit and curiosity that we are looking for.” 

The report’s findings reveal first- and second-generation immigrant students’ impact in the changing of college campuses. Within the 5.6 million students in higher education from immigrant families, there are 3.7 million second-generation immigrant students and 1.9 million first-generation immigrant students. Students from immigrant families are the fastest growing group of students in U.S. higher education, driving 80% of all domestic enrollment growth at colleges and universities from 2000 to 2021. 

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To foster inclusivity, Alfred University implemented a program called Common Ground, for first-year and transfer undergraduate students. The semester-long program seeks to provide common ground between students of diverse backgrounds and academic interests. It integrates new students into the college community through discussions in which students hear stories from their peers from different backgrounds and talk about sensitive topics like race, gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomic class.  

The study shows that students from immigrant families reflect a wide range of backgrounds, contributing to the diversity on campuses. 

In reflecting immigration patterns, 88% of Asian college students are of immigrant origin, with 37% identifying as first-generation and 51% second-generation. Sixty-eight percent of Latino college students are of immigrant origin, with 18% first-generation and 50% second-generation. Twenty-eight percent of all Black students in U.S. higher education are first- or second-generation immigrants, with 12% first-generation and 16% second-generation.

Students from immigrant families account for a significant percentage of all students in a growing number of states, with California topping the list at 54%. 

In Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Arizona, Massachusetts, Maryland, Washington, Connecticut, Nevada, Hawaii and Washington, D.C., students from immigrant families account for between 30% and 47% of the higher education student population.