America’s Brain Gain

Written by Richard Hokenson 

A dramatic and little-known reality about recent immigration flows to America was recently revealed in a report published by the Migration Policy Institute (2017). Despite the bias towards family reunification1, 48% of recently arrived immigrants (those coming between 2011 and 2015) were college graduates versus 27% of arrivals 25 years earlier. This development is at strong variance with the normal narrative that the human capital of newcomers is low and that they represent a burden to the U.S.

The increase in the share of college graduates results in good part from greater levels of English language proficiency and bilingualism. It also reflects an increase in secondary and postsecondary education offered in English as well as “…the fact that English has become the global lingua franca, especially in business, international trade, science, education, and entertainment.”

Selected highlights of the report are:

  • One in two immigrant college graduates are from Asia (see Chart 1). Latin Americans are the second largest group of highly skilled immigrants, supplanting Europe which slipped to third.
  • The size of the college educated immigrant population more than tripled between 1990 and 2015, from 3.1 million to 11.1 million.
  • Immigrants comprise 17% of the 66.4 million college-educated adults versus 10% in 1990.
  • Immigrants who arrive with temporary visas, such as an H-1B, are more educated than other groups of immigrants – 44% versus 34% for legal permanent residents.
  • Recently arrived immigrants are more likely to be college graduates than U.S. born adults in 26 states. This trend is especially pronounced in Michigan and Ohio - 59 to 63 per cent of recent immigrant arrivals had at least a bachelor’s degree compared to 26 to 27 per cent of the native born.
  • What has already occurred represents a substantial brain gain for America. It is important to remember, however, that highly skilled immigrants are selective in their choice of destinations. While the U.S. acts as a strong magnet, it is not the only country competing for highly skilled immigrants. A real or even perceived lack of welcome could reduce the attractiveness of coming to America. It is something that we will continue to monitor.

Batalova, Jeanne and Michael Fix, New Brain Gain: Rising Human Capital among Recent Immigrants to the United States (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2017),

1Of the more than one million new green card holders for permanent residents in 2015, almost half were relatives of citizens. An additional 20% entered through preferences to other family members and 14% were sponsored by companies, a share similar to those who first entered as refugees or asylum-seekers. 5% were lottery winners.

This update was researched and written by Richard Hokenson, as of June 21 2017