Immigrants and the U.S. Educational System

Table of Contents:

Key Findings

  • As of 2019, there are over 2.1 million immigrants working as teachers, professors, and other staffers in the U.S. education system. Together they make up more than 1 in 8 workers in the U.S. education sector. 
  • In some sectors, they make up an even greater share. There are more almost 785,000 immigrants working at U.S. college and universities, making up more than 1 in 6 workers in higher education. Meanwhile, there are over 200,000 immigrants working in child care and day care services and more more than 1 out of 5 childcare workers are foreign-born.
  • Even though undocumented workers are largely barred from working at public education institutions, they still contribute to other sectors of the education system. This is particularly true for child and day care services, where almost 200,000 undocumented workers work and make up more than 4 percent of the workforce. 
  • International students are also an important part of the U.S. education system. International students contribute directly to local economies through their tuition payments and their spending, but also as future workers. In the 2019-2020 academic year, over 1 million international students in the United States contributed $38.7 billion to our economy. 
  • Worryingly, however, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused a severe decline in the number of new international students attending U.S. colleges. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of new international students attending college in the United States fell by 72 percent.
  • This decline is on top of a downward trend in new international student arrivals in the United States. From a high of more than 644,000 in 2015, the number of new international student visas approved fell to just under 389,000 in 2019, a more than 39.6 percent decrease, before falling even more due to COVID-19 in 2020. As other countries attract more international students, the U.S. economy may suffer. Immigrants who graduate from U.S. institutions have long been a much-needed source of high-skilled workers in technology, health sciences, and engineering.
  • In 2019, there were more than 427,000 undocumented students studying in colleges and universities, including almost 182,000 DACA-eligible students. Overall, undocumented students made up 2 percent of all students in higher education. DACA-eligible students made up 0.8 percent of all students. 

Immigrants as Part of the American Education Workforce 

As teachers, professors, administrators, and students, immigrants form an integral part of the U.S. educational system, from daycare to graduate school. The latest data from the American Community Survey shows that over 2.1 million immigrants made up more than one in eight workers in the U.S. education sector in 2019. More one in six workers, or almost 280,000 immigrant workers serve in child and day care institutions while almost 785,000 immigrants work at colleges and universities around the country. 

Even though undocumented workers are largely barred from working at public education institutions, they still contribute to other sectors of the education system. This is particularly true in child and day care services, where almost 200,000 undocumented workers work and make up more than 4 percent of the workforce.

Workers in Education Sector, U.S. Totals

Total WorkersTotal Foreign-Born WorkersPercent Foreign-BornPercent Undocumented
16,493,5372,103,75112.8%1.2%
Source: 1-year Sample 2019 American Community Survey

Immigrant Education Workers by Industry Sector, U.S. Totals

Education SectorTotal WorkersTotal Foreign-Born WorkersPercent Foreign BornPercent Undocumented
Child Day Care1,634,708279,39617.1%4.1%
Colleges and Univ.4,503,378784,65417.4%0.8%
K-129,370,140899,5419.6%0.7%
Other Schools + Edu Support863,485125,81414.6%3.0%
Tech and Trade Schools121,82614,34611.8%2.5%
Source: 1-year Sample 2019 American Community Survey

Childcare and Daycare

In the United States, there are over 200,000 immigrants working in childcare (daycare) services. More than 1 out of 5 childcare workers (as opposed to administrators, teacher assistants, etc.) are foreign-born. In California, almost 40 percent of childcare workers are foreign-born.

Select Occupations in Child Day Care, U.S. Totals

OccupationTotal WorkersTotal Foreign-Born WorkersPercent Foreign BornPercent Undocumented
Childcare Workers629,445139,76522.2%6.7%
Edu. + Childcare Administrators98,53712,48412.7%2.7%
PreK + Kind. Teachers575,68576,61313.3%2.6%
Teacher Assistants135,24223,47717.4%2.9%
Source: 1-year Sample 2019 American Community Survey

K-12 Education

In primary and secondary education, there are nearly 900,000 immigrant workers. Together, they make up almost one in 10 workers in K-12 education nationwide. In California, almost one in five workers in the K-12 system are immigrants.

Colleges and Universities

In 2019, there were almost 785,000 foreign-born workers at U.S. colleges and universities, making up 17.4 percent of the workforce in higher education. Notably, more than one in five instructors and professors, over one in four teaching assistants, and over one in seven tutors are foreign-born. Overall, foreign-born workers at Colleges and Universities are more likely to have advanced degrees than their U.S.-born counterparts. While 58.8 percent of foreign-born university and college workers have advanced degrees, only 40.4 percent of U.S.-born workers have the same level of education.

Educational Attainment of Workers in Colleges and Universities, U.S. Total

NativityShare with Bachelor’s DegreeShare with Advanced Degree
Foreign-Born18.858.8
U.S.-Born2540.4

International Students

International students, as well, are an important part of the immigration story. Not only do international students contribute directly to local economies, either in the form of their tuition payments and through their spending while they study at U.S. colleges and universities, but also as future workers. Immigrants who graduate from highly technical math and science-related programs at U.S. institutions have long been a much-needed source of high-skilled workers in technology, biotechnology, and engineering industries. These are the same industries that have disproportionately driven innovation and economic growth in the United States. 

In the 2019-2020 academic year, over 1 million international students in the United States contributed $38.7 billion to our economy. 

Number of International Students Academic Level for Academic Year 2019-2020

Academic Level# of Int’l StudentsShare of Degree Seeking Int’l Students
Associate’s62,9507.9%
Bachelor’s356,371   44.9%
Master’s225,74328.4%
Doctoral/Professional148,69218.7%
Total793,756100%
Source:  Open Doors Data, Institute of International Education 

Number of International Students in Higher Education by State for Academic Year 2019-20

StateInt’l Students in Higher Education*Economic Contributions of Int’l Students**Jobs Supported by Int’l Students**Optional Practical Training (OPT) Participants***
United States1,074,90938.7 billion415,993214,136
Alabama9,376$325.9 million3,153659
Alaska375$11.6 million8252
Arizona22,548$682.1 million7,8002,437
Arkansas5,799$136 million1,174788
California160,592$6.6 billion69,15444,536
Colorado11,631$428.8 million5,1411,734
Connecticut15,112$584.6 million6,4721,842
Delaware6,342$170.3 million1,7221,781
District of Columbia13,046$591.8 million5,7692,081
Florida46,221$1.5 billion15,1656,997
Georgia24,265$839.2 million9,3557,035
Hawaii3,706$107.5 million882310
Idaho3,597$78.8 million688240
Illinois51,966$1.7 billion21,5989,334
Indiana28,136$920.7 million10,0842,308
Iowa11,603$352 million2,8831,602
Kansas8,911$250.4 million2,198925
Kentucky12,073$405 million2,792627
Louisiana7,177$250.2 million2,691635
Maine1,480$55.6 million446138
Maryland20,362$761.4 million8,7253,808
Massachusetts73,695$3.2 billion36,07610,604
Michigan31,408$1.1 billion12,2817,840
Minnesota15,378$467.7 million4,2022,265
Mississippi3,361$81.8 million779245
Missouri20,140$601.2 million6,8902,630
Montana1,410$44 million39774
Nebraska5,320$166.2 million1,514650
Nevada2,642$73.3 million731600
New Hampshire3,531$126.6 million1,525499
New Jersey23,092$809.3 million9,08615,396
New Mexico2,837$76.8 million695331
New York126,911$5.3 billion55,38324,611
North Carolina22,782$713.3 million8,4593,715
North Dakota2,002$46.5 million372204
Ohio35,508$1.2 billion12,6463,877
Oklahoma7,328$221.5 million2,072800
Oregon10,705$380.3 million3,7031,617
Pennsylvania50,070$2 billion25,1155,265
Rhode Island5,225$259.9 million2,517424
South Carolina6,493$199.2 million1,954721
South Dakota1,826$39.2 million269139
Tennessee7,864$284.1 million3,3651,428
Texas77,097$2 billion22,15722,870
Utah8,491$236.5 million2,3451,130
Vermont1,549$73.8 million640134
Virginia20,274$717.5 million8,3237,086
Washington26,089$923.6 million8,2797,585
West Virginia3,680$116.1 million1,052163
Wisconsin12,960$451.2 million5,0271,271
Wyoming923$21 million16593
*Source: Open Doors Data, Institute of International Education and NAFSA and includes students participating on Optional Practical Training (OPT)
** Source: NAFSA
*** Source: Niskanen/DHS
Further state data available at the Higher Education Immigration Portal

These numbers however, hide the fact that the number of new international students arriving in the United States has been stagnating, or worse, declining. From a high of more than 644,000 in 2015, the number of international student visas approved has been decreasing each year. By 2019, the number of international student visas granted had fallen to just under 389,000, a more than 39.6 percent decrease. The fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic further depressed these numbers as nearly all universities moved to remote learning: In FY2020, the number of international student visas granted fell by more than 81 percent to just over 121,000.

Another way to look at this, using data from the Student and Exchange Visitor (SEVIS) Program, is to look at the total number of international students attending college or university in the United States. This number too has fallen dramatically because of COVID. The number of new international students attending U.S. colleges dropped by 72 percent when compared to the previous calendar year. The data also show that the number of enrolled students across all levels of higher education also fell in 2020. In 2020, the total number of active F-1 and M-1 students was 1,251,569, a decrease of 17.9 percent from 2019. This decrease was seen nationwide, across all U.S. regions, however, the Northeast saw the greatest decrease at 19.4 percent. 

Given the economic benefits gained from having international students study at U.S. colleges and universities, the steep decline witnessed in the past year as well as the waning interest to study in the United States from new students over the past five years are likely to hurt the cities and towns that are home to America’s leading institutions of higher learning.

Undocumented College Students

Undocumented immigrants in the United States are not usually thought of in the context of higher education. However, the latest data shows that there are hundreds of thousands of college and university students who are undocumented or who are DACA-eligible. These students often face extreme challenges—both in terms of exclusionary policies and economic hurdles—when it comes to enrolling and completing college. 

Past NAE research has found that those that overcome these odds and who graduate with a 4-year degree are able to contribute more to their local and state economies given their skills and education. An increasing number of states have recognized the potential of undocumented or DACA-eligible students and have begun to offer in-state tuition to resident undocumented students who graduated from local high schools. 

By 2019, there were more than 427,000 undocumented students studying in colleges and universities, including almost 182,000 DACA-eligible students. Overall, undocumented students made up 2 percent of all students in higher education. As a smaller subset of undocumented college students, DACA-eligible students made up 0.8 percent of all students. The vast majority—around 7 out of 8—undocumented and DACA-eligible students are in undergraduate programs, with the remainder enrolled in graduate programs pursuing higher degrees. Similarly, the majority—8 out of 10—undocumented or DACA-eligible students are enrolled in public colleges or universities, as opposed to private ones. 

Undocumented and DACA-Eligible Students in Higher Education, 2019

Number of Undocumented Students in Postsecondary EducationShare of Undocumented Students in Postsecondary EducationNumber of DACA-Eligible Students in Postsecondary EducationShare of DACA-Eligible Students in Postsecondary Education
United States427,3452.0%181,6240.8%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau; American Community Survey, 2019 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates.

Undocumented and DACA-Eligible Students in Higher Education by State, 2019

StateNumber of Undocumented Students in Postsecondary EducationShare of Undocumented Students in Postsecondary EducationNumber of DACA-Eligible Students in Postsecondary EducationShare of DACA-Eligible Students in Postsecondary Education
California        94,0303.0%49,7041.6%
Texas        58,2553.1%30,8501.7%
Florida        40,1523.0%12,1610.9%
New York        25,2961.8%7,9320.6%
Illinois        17,7572.1%8,7841.0%
New Jersey        17,5903.0%1.0%
Washington        15,0393.3%1.5%
Georgia        14,2012.0%0.7%
Virginia        12,3872.0%0.8%
Massachusetts        11,6322.0%0.5%
Maryland          9,7302.2%0.8%
Arizona          9,4802.0%1.5%
North Carolina          8,7411.2%0.6%
Nevada3.7%
Connecticut2.3%
Utah1.8%
Colorado1.8%
Oregon1.3%
Indiana1.2%
Pennsylvania1.1%
Michigan1.0%
Ohio0.9%
 Source: U.S. Census Bureau; American Community Survey, 2019 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates.

Undocumented and DACA-Eligible Students in Undergraduate and Graduate Programs by Level, 2019

Number of Students in Undergraduate ProgramsShare of Students in Undergraduate ProgramsNumber of Students in Graduate ProgramsShare of Students in Graduate Programs
Undocumented383,32889.7%44,01710.3%
DACA-Eligible158,42487.2%23,30012.8%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau; American Community Survey, 2019 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates.

Undocumented and DACA-Eligible Students in Higher Education by Race, 2019

RaceUndocumented StudentsShare of Undocumented StudentsDACA-Eligible StudentsShare of DACA-Eligible Students
White55,33012.9%13,0107.2%
Black53,61712.5%9,6075.3%
Asian103,26324.2%29,52616.3%
Hispanic207,20748.5%126,51569.7%
Other7,9281.9%2,9661.6%

Conclusion

Despite the upheavals that many educators and child care workers have had to face in the past year due to the pandemic, immigrants in the education sector are continuing to work to keep America’s students safe, healthy, and educated. At every level of schooling, foreign-born workers help ensure that the next generation of Americans are equipped with the tools and skills they will need to succeed in the future. Meanwhile, at U.S. educational institutions, especially our colleges and universities, international students help to subsize costs for U.S.-born students while also injecting capital and consumer spending into college towns and cities across the United States. Last, although not thought of as a prime segment of the U.S. population in higher education, there are hundreds of thousands of undocumented and DACA-eligible college and university students who, once they complete their degrees, are expected to contribute their new skills to a growing American labor market that needs them. 

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