Expert Commentary

Migrating to opportunities: How family migration motivations shape childrens’ academic trajectories

Study in Journal of Social Issues on differences in family priorities and learning outcomes for immigrant children.

Migrants often have different reasons for coming to the United States. Two common motivations are their educational and employment aspirations for their children. The dutiful, hard-working child of immigrants has become a kind of cultural type in America, but research suggests the reality for such children is more complex.

A 2010 study published in the Journal of Social Issues, “Migrating to Opportunities: How Family Migration Motivations Shape Academic Trajectories among Newcomer Immigrant Youth,” looked at parents’ motivations for migration, their expectations for their children, and students’ academic performance. The study sampled 256 immigrant families with students in the Boston and San Francisco public schools, and focused on migrants from Central America, China, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Mexico.

The study’s major findings include:

  • Work and educational motivations are often seen as “mutually reinforcing,” the authors write, but they often produce different academic outcomes. Indeed, “work-related migration motivations seemed to conflict with educational migration goals.”
  • For parents whose primary motivation was educational opportunities for their children, there was a positive association with higher GPAs.
  • Among migrants who cited work prospects for children as a primary motivation, there was a decline in GPA as students entered adolescence.
  • Contrary to the commonly held notion that educational opportunities for children motivate most immigrants, the majority emphasized employment prospects, regardless of national origin.
  • There was some differentiation among groups: “Dominican and Mexican parents mentioned schooling more often than did Central Americans. Schooling was also more salient in the migration narratives of Dominican parents when compared to Haitian parents.”
  • Gender and country of origin also predicted overall academic performance in the study. Girls performed better than boys, Chinese students had the highest GPAs, and Dominican youth “were also more likely to show precipitous decline in GPA in the earlier years of the study.”

In conclusion, the researchers note that “understanding migration motivations could inform the design of policies and programs in order for educational initiatives to support rather than remain oblivious to the most salient reasons of family migration.”

Tags: children, Hispanic, Latino, race, parenting, youth

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