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Migrants’ Educational Choices

From immigrant optimism to the optimism trap?
Copyright: monkeybusinessimages

Ethnic minority students often choose more ambitious academic tracks than their native peers. However, the higher dropout rates among immigrant children at the higher secondary and university level suggest that low performing migrant students could have benefitted more from pursuing less ambitious tracks, especially in countries that offer viable vocational alternatives. Tjaden and Hunkler (2017) explore which factors explain the higher educational ambitions of migrant students by using a sample of academically low performing, lower secondary school students in Germany’s highly stratified education system. They found that neither the lack of access to relevant information, nor anticipated discrimination in the labour market explain the more ambitious choices of migrant students. Instead, the results are generally consistent with the immigrant optimism hypothesis, which highlights the transmission of particular family norms: Parents’ high expectations regarding their children’s educational achievement encourage migrant students to avoid vocational education following compulsory schooling and to choose the general, academic track education. 

The authors warn that immigrant optimism and the resulting narrow focus on the university track education may lead immigrant students to underestimate the potential of initial vocational training and contribute to the phenomenon of significantly higher dropout rates at the university level. When low performing secondary school students with a minority background favour academic tracks, they may have a higher risk for dropping out without achieving a degree. Tjaden and Hunkler (2017) describe their findings as the ‘optimism trap’: High levels of optimism may lead minority students to enter university at any price when vocational alternatives could have offered faster entry to employment, stable trajectories and comparable income.

Understanding ethnic differences in educational choices is highly relevant for policymakers concerned with reducing ethnic inequality in education and the resulting inequality in labour markets. By understanding migrants' choices and their differential effects in different systems, information can be gathered that could assist migrants in succeeding in their trajectories. The findings of Tjaden and Hunkler (2017) indicate that it is crucial to provide minority students at the secondary level and especially their families with as much information as possible about the trajectories and returns associated with different options. Because of the important role transmitted family norms regarding educational achievement have in regard to migrant students’ educational decision, support programmes and policy interventions may be most effective if additional effort is also made to reach out to migrant parents.

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