“How International Are U.S. Colleges?” by Alexandria Walton Radford and Thomas Espenshade

This week is International Education Week, which seeks to prepare Americans for a global environment and attract future leaders from abroad to study, learn, and exchange experiences in the United States.

So just how international are the student bodies at U.S. colleges and which countries are most represented?

We investigate these questions in our book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admissions and Campus Life.

First, analyzing data from eight most selective public and private U.S. colleges, we find that nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of students were either first-generation immigrants (born outside the United States to at least one foreign-born parent) or second-generation immigrants (born inside the United States to at least one foreign-born parent).

By race, about two-thirds of Hispanic students and roughly nine-tenths of Asian students were first- or second-generation immigrants. The proportion of white and black students with such international backgrounds was smaller. Also, unlike for Hispanics and Asians, immigrant representation among white and black students varied by the type of institution they attended. Approximately 15 percent of whites at private colleges vs. about 7 percent of whites at public colleges were immigrants or the child of an immigrant. The proportion of black students who were first- or second generation immigrants was 34 percent at private colleges and 9 percent at public colleges.

Having established the high proportion of students with international backgrounds at our most selective universities, we turn to our second question: Which countries are most represented?

As the table below reveals, the most common countries of origin for each race group often differ by immigrant generation. White first-generation immigrant students’ most frequent places of birth were Canada and the USSR. White second-generation immigrants were most likely to have a parent from Italy, Canada, or Germany.

Jamaica and Nigeria were the most popular countries of origin for first-generation immigrant blacks. Mothers and fathers of second-generation immigrant blacks most frequently hailed from Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago. Nigerian roots were also common among second-generation black immigrants’ fathers but not mothers.
For first-generation Hispanic students, Mexico was the most frequent birthplace. However, if we combine the proportion of students born in Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Venezuela, and Peru, first-generation Hispanic students were somewhat more likely to have South American (28 percent) than Mexican (24 percent) roots. The same is not true of second-generation Hispanics, who were roughly two to three times as likely to have Mexican as South American ancestry. Also, although few first-generation Hispanics are of Cuban descent, Cuba was the second most common birthplace of parents of second-generation immigrant Hispanics.

First-generation Asians were most frequently born in Taiwan or Korea but a sizeable proportion also came from India and Hong Kong. Among second-generation Asians, about one-quarter had Indian roots, and students with Chinese and Korean heritage were also well represented.

Most Common National Origins of First- and Second-Generation National Study of College Experience (NSCE) Matriculants by Race
NSCE Matriculant Sample: 1980s, 1993, and 1997 Cohorts Combined
Whites (N = 152) (N = 190) (N = 190)
Canada 16.5 5.9 6.5
USSR 9.2 1.4 0.7
Germany 6.5 4.5 6.6
India 5.5 0.3 0.0
Italy 5.3 8.5 5.1
Egypt 5.0 2.3 1.4
Iran 4.0 3.1 0.6
Poland 3.7 0.4 0.3
United States 0.0 26.9 41.1
Blacks (N = 113) (N = 211) (N = 211)
Jamaica 19.2 13.1 15.0
Nigeria 15.5 7.7 1.9
Trinidad/Tobago 7.9 5.4 5.7
Canada 7.2 0.4 0.5
Other Africa 6.7 6.3 2.3
Haiti 6.4 7.6 7.5
Ethiopia 4.4 1.1 1.3
Kenya 4.2 0.7 0.0
United States 0.0 23.5 24.9
Hispanics (N = 219) (N = 474) (N = 474)
Mexico 23.7 26.2 32.2
Brazil 7.4 0.6 0.4
Colombia 7.0 4.7 5.7
Argentina 5.8 4.8 3.8
Venezuela 4.3 1.0 0.5
Peru 3.8 1.5 1.8
Spain 3.0 1.6 0.9
Cuba 1.9 11.0 8.8
United States 0.0 24.4 22.5
Asians (N = 574) (N = 752) (N = 752)
Taiwan 18.8 12.0 12.6
Korea 18.1 15.7 16.9
India 11.1 26.1 23.4
Hong Kong 9.7 1.4 3.6
Vietnam 5.5 2.3 2.5
China 5.0 20.3 16.9
Canada 5.0 0.0 0.0
Singapore 4.6 0.1 0.2
United States 0.0 6.2 4.8

Note: The countries listed represent the most common foreign birthplaces of first-generation students by race, with two exceptions. First, we include the United States in order to examine the percentage of second-generation students with one American-born parent. Second, we incorporate Cuba in the Hispanic section because such a large percentage of second-generation Hispanic students have roots there.

Source: No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admissions and Campus Life, Table 4.6, p. 147.

Thomas J. Espenshade
is a professor of sociology at Princeton University. Alexandria Walton Radford is a senior research associate in postsecondary education with MPR Associates, Inc. in Washington. Together they are authors of No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admissions and Campus Life