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Out Of School And Out Of Luck
Immigrant Youth Face Uncertain Futures

By Laura Hill, research fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in New America Media on May 29, 2007

Given the potential human, economic, and social costs of immigrant youth not attending school, California should act now to provide educational opportunities for this population of young people.

A large subset of young California immigrants are facing difficult prospects in life but are going largely unnoticed by most of society. Immigrant youth who are not attending school – or have dropped out of a U.S. school – are a particularly vulnerable and challenging population slipping under the radar of most public programs.

The estimated number of out-of-school immigrant youth in California exceeds 250,000. Together, these young people make up 25 percent of all immigrants between the ages of 13 and 22 in the state. The overwhelming majority, 82 percent, come from Mexico, while 11 percent come from other Central American countries, and just over five percent come from Asia.

The potential cost of ignoring this population is high—both for the individuals and for the state. Many of these young immigrants already have children of their own, and research clearly shows that children whose parents have not graduated from high school are less likely to do so themselves. In addition, many say they plan to stay in California.

Doing nothing to address their lack of school attendance could mean that the state ends up with a large population of low-skilled residents at a time when its economy is demanding high-skilled workers. Comparing immigrant youth who do not attend school to those who do reveals just how disadvantaged the out-of-school group truly is. Close to two-thirds do not speak English “well” or “very well,” compared to only 15 percent of their in-school counterparts. Those not attending schools are also much more likely than in-school youth to live away from their parents, have their own children, be in the workforce at very young ages, earn lower wages, and live in poverty.

The difference in educational attainment is especially dramatic. Fifty percent of out-of-school immigrant youth now between the ages of 19 and 22 have less than a ninth grade education, compared to less than one percent of their in-school counterparts.

Further complicating matters, out-of-school immigrant youth fall into two groups that probably require different forms of outreach to bring them into the educational fold: those who have never attended school in the United States and those who have attended but dropped out.

Youth who have never attended school here may be the most difficult to serve—but also the most rewarding. Data from a program that serves out-of-school immigrant youth in Bay Area and coastal counties show that most have migrated to the United States to work—many on their own—and a startling 80 percent report supporting their families either in part or in full.

Despite serious hardships, a majority of them express interest in improving their education. More than 80 percent are interested in English language instruction, and nearly one-third would like to earn their high school GED. Moreover, those who have completed the equivalent of eighth grade in Mexico may be well-equipped for academic success here. Those 18 or older may be able complete a GED and perhaps enroll in community college, while those who are school-aged may succeed in a traditional high school setting with additional support to learn English.

But these young people face other challenges likely to distract them from pursuing educational opportunities. For example, despite their intense work participation, immigrant youth who have never attended a U.S. school have extremely low levels of health insurance, with fewer than 15 percent reporting some form of coverage. They also have disproportionately high health needs. Nearly 75 percent report having a vision, dental, or medical need.

Those who have dropped out of U.S. schools typically express less interest in education than those who have never attended. However, the dropout group is equally critical because they also have high levels of socioeconomic need. Over one-third report needing assistance with transportation, child-care, clothing, counseling, and drug and alcohol intervention. Moreover, for many, a high school diploma is within reach. Among those who have dropped out, 88 percent already have at least some high school education, compared to a mere 14 percent of those who’ve never attended a U.S. school.

Current federal and state programs are doing little to reach out-of-school immigrant youth, especially those who have never attended a U.S. school. One program that can serve part of this population is the federal Migrant Education Program (MEP), which offers some hope for improving the prospects of young out-of-school immigrants across the nation.

However, the majority of California’s out-of-school immigrant youth are not eligible for MEP. This is a serious gap. To offset it, the state should consider increasing access to English As A Second Language (ESL) courses, and other basic skills classes, for this group.

Finally, the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act has a built-in disincentive that could be seriously affecting these young immigrants. Under NCLB requirements, traditional schools have little incentive to roll out the welcome mat for students who are likely to lower a school’s test scores—as those with poor English skills likely would. This unintended consequence of NCLB could be addressed by rewarding schools for the progress individual students make, rather than for overall test scores.

The potential cost of not educating California’s out-of-school immigrant youth is high. Too high. Considering their numbers, and the fact that so many want to learn, it seems the state has a real opportunity to make a difference in the lives of these young people, and in its own future, by opening more paths to education.


Out-of-School Immigrant Youth

The Socioeconomic Well-Being of California's Immigrant Youth

Educational Progress Across Immigrant Generations in California