The University Network

Why Immigrants Are More Likely To Study STEM Than U.S.-Born Students

U.S. immigrant children are more likely than US.-born children to study and pursue careers in STEM fields, a new study by Duke University and Stanford finds.

The researchers attribute these findings to the immigrant children’s comparative advantage in non-English-intensive subjects and comparative disadvantage in English-intensive subjects.

“Most studies on the assimilation of immigrants focus on the language disadvantage of non-English-speaking immigrants,” Marcos Rangel, an assistant professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “We focus instead on the comparative strength certain immigrant children develop in numerical subjects, and how that leads to majoring in STEM subjects in college.”

The study

The study examined the educational tendencies of immigrant children who entered the country before age 16, using data collected between 2010 and 2016 in the American Community Survey and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. These statistics were bolstered by data from the 2010, 2013 and 2015 waves of the National Survey of College Graduates.

The researchers found that immigrant children on the whole study STEM subjects more commonly than U.S.-born children. Other variables, such as the age of the children at immigration and the relation between their native language and English, also impact the choice in majors.

Immigrant children arriving after age 10 from countries with a native language that is dissimilar to English study STEM at the highest rates. Of these students, 36 percent major in STEM subjects, compared to only 20 percent of U.S.-born college students.

The study’s conclusions follow a certain logic. Because immigrant children, especially those who arrive at older ages, are less comfortable communicating in English than their native-born peers, they gravitate toward subjects where the language barrier is less of an impediment.

“Some children who immigrate to the U.S., particularly older children from a country where the main language is very dissimilar to English, quite rationally decide to build on skills they are relatively more comfortable with, such as math and science,” Rangel said in a statement.

Immigrant children who arrive at later ages tend to take more math and science courses beginning in high school. This group earns 20 percent more credits in math-intensive courses than in English-intensive courses, according to the study.

This comparative advantage in math and science and comparative disadvantage in English-intensive subjects carries into immigrant students’ higher education and career choice.

This helps to explain the lack of representation of immigrants in English-intensive jobs and the high representation of well-educated immigrants in STEM careers.

The implications

The researchers believe these results can help educators and policymakers design more effective courses and education strategies.

“The focus on specialization can also inform education policies that seek to bridge skill gaps between immigrant and native children,” they wrote in the study. “Our findings illustrate the long-term impacts of immigration policies over U.S. STEM-based innovations and show more broadly that education policies targeting STEM engagement could benefit by focusing on the early stages of a child’s development.”