University of California System More Diverse Than Originally Thought
Research shows more than half of undergrads are immigrants or children of immigrants
By Pamela Burdman
The University of California has long been recognized as a diverse institution, but a new report reveals another dimension of that diversity: More than half of UC’s undergraduates are immigrants or the children of immigrants.
In the first attempt by a major research university to systematically survey undergraduates, researchers found that 55 percent of students had at least one immigrant parent or were themselves born in another country. “That’s a pretty startling statistic,” notes Dr. Richard Flacks, professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, and one of the study’s authors. The 2003 survey targeted 16,000 students at UC’s eight undergraduate campuses, and received 6,658 responses.
The percentages are highest among Asian Americans and Latinos. Some 41 percent of Asian American students say they were born in another country, and an additional 54 percent say that at least one of their parents is an immigrant. About 60 percent of Latino students are also immigrants or the children of immigrants. But the report noted that 36 percent of Black students and 22 percent of White students also are first-generation Americans.
Though it is no secret that immigrant students have a significant presence on UC campuses, the actual numbers were not previously estimated.
“There has been no systematic effort to gauge the immigrant background of students,” notes Dr. John Douglass, a senior research fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley, another author of the report. “Frankly people were surprised. This is an old story in American higher education, that immigrant groups really have taken advantage of education as a route for socioeconomic mobility.”
Flacks says this sort of data should influence policy decisions about the university. “The faculty and the public and policy-makers still view the student body of the University of California as if it was a suburban White upper-middle class population,” Flacks says. “That has changed fundamentally. If I’m standing in front of a class talking about social movements and say, ‘As your parents may have experienced back in the ’60s,’ I then realize that is not any longer a statement that makes sense. More than half of the students sitting there have parents who did not experience these things.”
The first survey was conducted in 2002, and the current results reflect 2003, the second survey. This year, the survey’s third year, researchers are attempting a census approach. It is hoped that the size of the survey will yield results about minority groups that often elude other studies. “We’re talking about tens of thousands of students taking this,” Flacks says. “That allows pretty fine-grain analysis of relatively small proportions of the student body. It’s very hard to find good data on African American students. The number of Black students in the sample is going to be very small because the percentage of students in the student body is very small.”
They expect the survey data to become a resource for researchers outside the university as they seek to understand various aspects of the undergraduate experience.
“There are many different undergraduate experiences, particularly in large institutions,” notes Douglass. “They link not only to students’ majors, but also to their backgrounds. This report is the tip of the iceberg.”
The report also includes information about how students spend their time, their academic aspirations, their use of technology, and their level of engagement in academic life. One interesting finding was that students who identify themselves as low-income or poor study more than other students. In fact, the wealthier the student, the fewer hours he or she appears to spend studying per week, with the wealthiest students spending an average of 10 and a half hours per week studying vs. the poorest quintile, where students spent more than 12 hours a week on their schoolwork.
That finding could have some bearing on admissions policies, say researchers. So could an observation about SAT scores and grades: While students with higher grade point averages seemed to spend more time studying than their counterpoints with lower grades, the inverse holds true for SAT scores: Students with the highest SAT scores appear to be less academically engaged.
Because of its implication on admissions decisions, the link between SAT scores and academic engagement is one that Flacks says merits further study. “There’s something about the SAT that is picking up traits or attitudes or motivational patterns that don’t go along with academic seriousness,” Flack says.
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