November 1, 2005

The Higher Drop-Out Rate of Foreign-Born Teens

III. Foreign-Born Teen Populations

In the 2000 Census there were nearly 1 million foreign-born 15-to-17-year-old youths. The importance of foreign-born youths for the school dropout population is clear. Foreign-born youths were 8 percent of all youths in 2000, but they were nearly 25 percent of all young school dropouts.

Some of the foreign-born 15-to-17-year-olds have been in the United States since early childhood and received all or nearly all their schooling in American schools. In 2000, about 400,000 foreign-born 15-to-17-year-olds arrived early in childhood–about 42 percent of all foreign-born youths (Table 1). Following Hirschman (2001), in this report the “early childhood arrivals” have been in the United States at least nine years (they must have arrived before 1992) and thus arrived no later than 8 years of age or second grade. The outcomes of these youths clearly and unambiguously reflect their experience in schools in the United States.

The key group for dropout behavior is the larger group of recently arrived immigrant youths who numbered about 560,000 in 2000. By definition, “recent arrivals” came to the United States in 1992 or later and hence they arrived here no earlier than age 7. On average, these youths arrived at 12 years of age and some did not migrate to the United States until age 17. Recently arrived youths received a significant segment of their early schooling in schools outside the United States. Their current outcomes are not simply a reflection of their experience in U.S. schools, since they clearly were educated abroad in their early school years. Some of them have never been enrolled in U.S. schools.3

It is critical to further break down the 560,000 recently arrived immigrant youths. Some had schooling difficulties before they migrated to the United States. The Census reveals the highest grade of school that a youth has completed, and we can compare the grade that a youth has completed to the age at which he or she migrated to the United States in order to infer whether the youth made normal progress in school before migrating. For example, consider a youth who arrives in the United States at age 15. If the youth made normal progress in school abroad, we would expect him or her to have at least an eighth-grade education.4 If he or she has completed less than the eighth grade, the immigrant was not making normal school progress abroad by U.S. standards. On this basis, about 60,000 recent arrivals had schooling difficulties before migration in that they were not keeping up in school abroad. This small group of youths constituted 6 percent of all foreign-born 15-to-17-year-olds and 11 percent of recent arrivals.

  1. A significant portion of foreign-born young adults have never enrolled in U.S. schools. A supplemental Census Bureau survey indicated that 28 percent of foreign-born 16-to-24 year-olds have never enrolled in U.S. schools (NCES, 1997). Nearly 70 percent of these youths had not finished high school.
  2. This follows from U.S. norms of school progression. In the United States the modal grade of enrollment for 15- year-olds is ninth grade (calculated on April 1), implying that the youth has completed eighth grade. This is likely a generous standard of school progression for some foreign-born youths since the typical age when children commence schooling is earlier in some countries than in the United States.