New data shows sizeable education, workforce payoff of investing in immigrant Dreamers

By Katie Spiker, October 14, 2015

As Congress faces another DACA deadline, freshly released data is highlighting the notable dividends of investing in young immigrant Dreamers. 

A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research demonstrates that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program had a significant impact on young undocumented immigrants’ decisionmaking. The paper highlights increases in high school attendance and high school graduation rates, increased pursuit of postsecondary education, and greater workforce participation by those pursuing education, as well as decreased teen fertility rates.

The findings reflect National Skills Coalition’s longstanding recommendations about the importance of investing in education and workforce pathways for undocumented youth, and the broader societal payoff that comes with such investments.

The results add urgency to Congress’s debate over the future of nearly 700,000 young people who were granted temporary 2-year work permits and temporary protection from deportation under the DACA program. Begun in 2012, the program was rescinded in September 2017 by the Trump administration. Nearly 20,000 DACA recipients have since lost their status, despite the introductions of numerous bipartisan bills in Congress to address their situation.

About the study

The NBER study draws on data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the Youth Risk Behavior Factor Surveillance Survey, and a California Department of Education dataset from the state’s high-stakes graduation examination, known as the California High School Exit Exam. It uses a “difference in differences” technique to compare youth who would likely have been eligible for DACA with a similarly-situated population of non-eligible foreign-born youth.

The study was authored by Elira Kuka, Na’ama Shenhav, and Kevin Shih. It was released as a working paper; NBER’s working papers are intended to solicit discussion and comment from the field.

Findings: More likely to complete high school

The authors found that high school completion rates increased significantly following the inception of the DACA program, particularly among those at the younger end of their study ages (19-23) and among young men. Overall, the authors estimate that DACA led to an additional 49,000 high school graduates nationwide.

Because DACA required applicants to have completed high school or be currently enrolled in school (a definition that included a high-school equivalency and other adult education programs), there is a clear mechanism by which undocumented youth were incentivized to stay in school or return to school in order to benefit from DACA.

More likely to enroll in postsecondary education

The authors also found that young women were more likely to enroll in postsecondary education after the introduction of DACA. Recognizing the importance of all kinds of postsecondary education, the NBER researchers did not limit their analysis to those who enrolled in four-year colleges or universities, but rather a broad range of postsecondary opportunities.

NSC has previously written about the importance of Dreamers’ access to middle-skill education and training opportunities, and the role of Dreamers in meeting employers’ demand for middle-skill workers.

(Young men were not more likely to pursue postsecondary education; the NBER researchers hypothesize that this is because undocumented men are generally more likely to be concentrated in sections of the labor market that depend more on manual labor skills and are less likely to require postsecondary credentials. However, more research is needed to better understand this finding.)

State “tuition equity” legislation pays off

The researchers found that states that had enacted so-called “tuition equity” or “state-level Dream Act” legislation – that is, bills that allow undocumented youth to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges — saw greater increases in postsecondary participation among DACA youth than states that had not.

Greater productivity; less idleness

Being neither enrolled in school nor working is typically defined as “idleness” in the economic literature. The NBER paper found that DACA was correlated with a decrease in idleness (and thus increase in productivity).

Notably, this did not simply reflect young people who choose to go to school or work – rather, DACA recipients appear to be more likely to be in school and working. This is contrary to the common economic assumption that increases in school and work are mutually exclusive.

It suggests that the security and stability afforded by DACA encourage young people to make greater investments in their own economic and educational futures, including by pursuing postsecondary education opportunities that may require them to earn more in order to fund their tuition.

Less likely to have teen pregnancies

The researchers found that young women ages 15-18 were less likely to become pregnant after the introduction of DACA. The findings suggest that DACA may have increased future orientation and long-term planning among teen women, leading them to delay childbearing.

The bottom line: Public policies are driving significant dividends

The study’s findings demonstrate that young undocumented immigrants respond quickly and enthusiastically when policymakers present them with a path to greater educational and workforce opportunities. The findings are especially notable among young Hispanic men, who are often vulnerable to high school dropout pressures, and young women, who demonstrated eagerness to pursue postsecondary education despite the fact that such education was not required in order to obtain DACA status.

National Skills Coalition urges Congress to take these findings (and related studies) into consideration in implementing a long-term, permanent pathway to citizenship for immigrant Dreamers.