November 1, 2005

The Higher Drop-Out Rate of Foreign-Born Teens

II. Introduction

Foreign-born youths are significantly more likely not to be enrolled in high school than other youths. The adjustment difficulties of immigrant youth are typically conceived as arising from the stresses and disruption of an international move (Warren, 1996) and the lower socioeconomic status and disadvantaged family background characterizing foreign-born youth.1 The pattern of high school dropout rates reveals, however, a large measure of continuity in the school enrollment of recently arrived foreign-born teens. The vast majority of newly arrived immigrant youths appear to have made adequate school progress in their schools before they left for America. Many are enrolled and engaged in high school after arrival. A small sliver of recent arrivals, however, had difficulties and did not make adequate grade progress before coming to the United States. They bring their school problems with them, whether they are from Asia or Latin America. Most of these youths are not in school in the United States. Because of their very high dropout rate, this small group of immigrant teens accounts for nearly 40 percent of all foreign-born high school dropouts.

In the late 1990s at least 1.5 million immigrants came to the United States each year and the foreign-born population increased from 19.8 million in 1990 to 31.1 million in 2000 (Passel and Suro, 2005). Much of the focus on these newly arrived residents is on adult immigrant outcomes—on their economic status, for example, or on where they settle. However, a significant portion of the new arrivals are children. Almost 30 percent of newly arrived immigrants are under the age of 18.2 Schooling is the major formal activity of children, and thus a full evaluation of how newly arrived immigrants are faring in society must include discussion of how foreign-born youths perform in U.S. schools.

This brief report provides a full investigation of a fundamental indicator of school performance, teen school dropout rates, or whether a youth is in school. Foreign-born youths are more likely to be school dropouts than native-born youths. Although the dropout rate is only one measure of school performance, it is critical. Youths who are not in school are much less likely to finish high school and further their education and will not progress in their academic and formal skills.

The greater likelihood that immigrant teens will not be in high school is almost exclusively caused by the dropout difficulties of recently arrived youths. Recent arrivals who struggled in school before coming to the United States are much less likely to be currently enrolled in school than other foreign-born youths. The pattern is apparent for youths from all sending countries. Schooling difficulties abroad are highly predictive of dropout status here. Conversely, many of the large group of recently arrived youths who were on track in school before coming to the United States appear to transition successfully into U.S. schools. Their dropout rate is only modestly above that of youths who came to the United States early in childhood, and the dropout rates are quite low for many countries of origin.

Prior research on the school enrollment of foreign-born youth has shown that a large proportion of Hispanic foreign-born young adults dropped out of school because they never “dropped in”—in other words, they never enrolled in U.S. schools (Vernez and Abrahamse, 1996; NCES, 1997). The contribution of this report is not to confirm this finding, but to enrich it by examining the school performance of foreign-born high school age youths before they came to America. The plausibility that foreign-born youths simply never enrolled in U.S. schools is strengthened if many of them dropped out or got behind in school in their country of origin. This report shows that school enrollment is highly dependent on the progress the youth made in school before coming to the United States.

Recently arrived youths who struggled in school before migration are distinctive in other ways in addition to their very high dropout rate. They have high employment rates and earn considerably more in the labor market than other immigrant youths. They are heavily concentrated in the agriculture and construction industries. Many do not live with their parents and they are more likely than their counterparts to be married. In short, the evidence is consistent with the characterization that some of these youths are labor migrants. Though teenagers, they may have come to America to work and have never entered U.S. schools since they left school in their country of origin well before they departed for the United States.

The report presents detailed school dropout rates using the 2000 Decennial Census Public Use files. This very large sample has over 40,000 foreign-born 15-to-17-year-olds, so dropout rates for youths from more than 40 countries can be tabulated (see the Appendix for further details). The dropout rates calculated are conventional “status dropout rates.” A youth is a “dropout” if he or she is not currently enrolled in school and has not completed a high school education. Otherwise, the youth is considered “in school.” Both the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Education regularly publish status school dropout rates for youth (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2003; NCES, 2004a).

  1. The terms “immigrant” and “foreign-born” are used interchangeably in this report. Youths born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, but they are included in this analysis and are treated no differently from youths from other countries of origin.
  2. According to the 2000 Census, among the 2.5 million foreign-born persons who arrived in 1999 or 2000, over 700,000 or 29 percent were children under the age of 18.