Across the nation, the demand for workers with higher levels of skills and education is increasing. Would-be employers looking for such employees include both the public and private sectors. Many players are launching initiatives to boost the number and share of college-goers. What is plain to see is that immigrants make up a large proportion of the higher-educated worker population. By 2018, 17 percent of US adults with a college education were not born in the country itself. 32% of immigrant adults have a bachelor’s or higher degree. Finally, 47% of the newcomers have arrived with a university degree.

Since 1990, an ease of immigration has worked in favor of two groups. The first is students who want to seek out the opportunities that the US offers. And, secondly, the US when these immigrants with higher levels of education became part of the country. The largest influx of this nature took place in 1990-2000 (87%), followed by 2000-2010 (57%), and then 2010-2018 (38%). The share of college-educated adults born in the US is growing at a much more sedate pace.

In 2018, immigrants were making up just 17% of the civilian employee population. However, more had occupations requiring a college degree. About 30% were physicians, 42% physical scientists, and 45% software developers. The Trump-era bottleneck on immigration is also reducing the number of available highly skilled immigrants. Additionally, other high-income countries are making concerted efforts to attract the same type of workforce.

Below, we provide the demographic and socioeconomic profile of foreign-born US civilian population:

Geographic Distribution

About 51% of highly skilled immigrants live in four states:

  1. California – 2.9 million
  2. New York – 1.3 million
  3. Florida – 1.2 million
  4. Texas – 1.1 million

The remaining 22 percent are in New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Virginia, Washington, and Maryland.


More immigrant college graduates are of prime working age than their native-born counterparts. 47% of them identify as Non-Latino Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI). Non-Latino Whites and Latinos form 26 and 18% of the rest of the college-educated population. Native-born are more likely to be white – about 82 percent.

The countries producing the highest numbers of college-educated immigrants who end up in the US are:

  1. India – 15%
  2. China – 8%
  3. Philippines – 7%
  4. Mexico – 6%

However, we also see an increased influx from these places:

  1. Venezuela
  2. Brazil
  3. France
  4. The Dominican Republic
  5. Bangladesh

Language & Qualification

The proportion of college-educated immigrants proficient in English is also on the up. It went from 71% in 2000 to 75% in 2018. They’re also more likely than their US-born counterparts to have completed advanced degrees. The ratio is 14% to 10% for doctoral degrees but it’s similar for master’s degrees in both demographics. 70% of immigrant adults have highly educated spouses compared to 63% of the native-born

Employment & Occupation

Both types of college graduates were equally likely to have employment before COVID-19. They also show lower unemployment rates compared to workers without a four-year college education regardless of nativity.

Where college-educated immigrant workers differ from their native-born counterparts is the kind of occupations they gravitate towards. Usually, they work in high-tech, engineering, and science fields:

  1. Management – 15%
  2. Computer and math – 12%
  3. Technicians – 12%
  4. Health practitioners – 12%
  5. Business and finance – 10%
  6. Education – 9%

The ratio between the two groups for occupations in computer and mathematics is 12 to 5. US-born college graduates head for the following areas:

  1. Management – 17%
  2. Education – 14%
  3. Business and finance – 11%
  4. Health practitioners – 10%
  5. Technicians – 10%
  6. Sales – 8%

Brain Waste

Wasting college-graduates on low-skilled jobs is referred to as brain waste. In 2018, this was true for approximately 23% and 18% foreign- and US-born college graduates.

Income & Poverty

Both types of employees had similar median household incomes, i.e., $105,000-$100,000. Even so, immigrant adults were more likely to be in poverty (15:13). This might have been due to their family size, underemployment, and more of them working part-time than full-time.

H-1B Temporary Skilled Worker Program

As part of the Immigration Act (1990), highly skilled foreigners can work for US-based companies on an H-1B visa. They must have a four-year education and a specialty occupation to qualify. Most college-educated immigrants choose this pathway to come to the country. Only 85,000 of them can avail that in a year.

Specialty Workers

The twin recessions in 2001 and ‘08 saw a reduction in H-1B petitions filing. But as of 2020, the number has increased enough to meet the 85,000 visa cap. However, the Trump H-1B suspension could end up decreasing the number of temporary workers who do show up.

Even in the fiscal year (FY) 2019, two thirds of H-1B petitions were for computer-related occupations. The trend has held stable for the past few years. Other top occupations include:

  1. Education
  2. Accounting
  3. Engineering
  4. Administrative services
  5. Surgeons
  6. Physicians

But policy changes, including the removal of certain types of computer programmers from H-1B visa and increasing scrutiny, may cause more non-IT-related workers to come in.

A look at the countries from which 90% of the H-1B petitioners originate shows us this profile:

  1. India
  2. Canada
  3. China
  4. South Korea
  5. Philippines
  6. Mexico
  7. Taiwan
  8. Brazil
  9. UK
  10. Pakistan

International Students

About twice more international students enrolled in US institutions in 2018-19 than did in 1990-91 (408,000 vs. 1,095,000). Most of the increase comes from the students pursuing optional practical training (OPT) after graduation. During OPT, an F-1 foreign student can work in the US for a 12-month-long period. The duration is 24 months for F-1s in STEM fields. Twenty percent of international students went for OPT in 2018-19 as compared to the 12% in 2013-14. However, the number of new admissions is on the decline.

Seventy percent of international students in 2018-18 were from Asia — Namely China, India, and South Korea. The other top five origin countries were Saudi Arabia and Canada. More than half of all these students chose one the following as their fields of study:

  1. Engineering
  2. Math
  3. Computer science
  4. Business
  5. Management

Almost 40% were undergraduates, 35% graduates, and 6% non-degree students. The rest were those pursuing OPT.

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