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A group of researchers from BYU and the University of Albany recently tested the claim that immigrant students drain resources from native-born students — but they found just the opposite to be true.

Both native-born and immigrant students performed better in school in contexts with higher immigration. In fact, the study discovered if immigrants live in the same conditions as native-born students, they are statistically indistinguishable in terms of academic achievement.

“The current political environment shows a big push against immigration that in many ways is driven by an argument that immigrants will pull resources from the host country,” said Mikaela Dufur, a sociology professor at BYU. “The thought is if you want to protect the host country you need to really limit immigration to protect those resources.”

For the purpose of the study, the research focused on three different groups: native-born students (parents and students born in that country), second-generation students (students born in that country but parents born in another) and first-generation students (students born outside of current country).

Better test scores were reflected in all three groups alike.

“We were really interested in looking at education because we thought kids would be the most vulnerable citizens of the host country,” Dufur said. “If you were going to drain resources from kids, you should really see an effect of that and you might want to have stricter immigration policies to protect them.”

Portraits of two of the study's authors
Authors Mikaela Dufur and Florencia Silveira

All groups benefit from higher foreign-born population rates. In countries with a very small proportion of immigrants, immigrants perform about 15 to 20 points below native-born students; in countries with 15 percent or more immigrants, native-born students and immigrants are within 10 points of each other; in countries with 25 percent foreign-born, all three groups perform within five points of each other. In other words, higher immigration is associated with a narrowing of the achievement gap between immigrants and native-born students.

“We were pleasantly surprised it wasn’t just a neutral effect for the native kids but that they actually did better with more immigrant kids in their class,” Dufur said.

To gather the information needed, the group looked at 41 high-income countries and used the data to examine the perceived costs of the “strain” immigrant populations have on students in host countries. The study consisted of more than 260,000 students from more than 10,000 academic institutions.

In addition to the students’ immigrant status, the team examined academic mathematic achievement, the moderating effect of student socio-economic status on achievement and how country-level foreign-born population affects both immigrant and native-born students’ performance.

In the study’s conclusion, policymakers should consider the positive economic, cultural and social aspects of a strong immigrant population when drafting or evaluating immigration procedures. Individuals also reap other benefits from contexts with high immigration.

The findings were recently published in sociology journal Socius, written by co-authors and BYU sociology professors Dufur and Jonathan Jarvis, and the lead author Florencia Silveira, a PhD student at the University of Albany who received her undergraduate and master’s degrees from BYU.