Panel Paper: The Impact of Refugees on Natives’ Academic Achievement and Postsecondary Education

Friday, November 8, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Plaza Court 3 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Cynthia van der Werf, University of California, Davis

The number of asylum-seekers worldwide has reached it’s highest point in history. Over 120,00 refugees entered the U.S. including large numbers of children and there is uncertainty about how this inflow will affect native children’s schooling outcomes. Refugees may affect native students in several ways. Refugees may decrease the benefit of attending school by competing with natives for resources and reducing per pupil expenditures. This could happen through peer effects, because schools put more effort into helping children with limited English proficiency, or if payments to schools are not based explicitly on the number of students. However, as some schools received additional funding per refugee through the Transition Program for Refugee Children, their presence may have raised the quality of their school’s teaching. Moreover, the inflow of low skilled refugees increases the return to education by widening the high school graduate to high school dropout gap.

To fill this gap in the literature, this paper studies how the largest inflow of refugees in the U.S. history –Indochinese refugees at the end of the Vietnam War – affected U.S. children. This research question presents substantial data and methodological challenges. Hardly any available data sources identify refugees. And, it is hard to disentangle the effect of refugees on their communities from the reasons why they choose to live in a specific location.

To address these issues, I use novel, to date unused data from the U.S. National Archives which contains individual level records of refugees including their county of destination. This information has several advantages. First, it contains the first location of refugees – generally determined by private voluntary agencies when they were resettled – which is independent of individual refugee’s location choice. The fact that the location to which refugee’s were first sent is quasi random allows me to use the location of refugees as a natural experiment to study how an inflow of refugees affects their classmates. Second, the dataset only includes refugees, so they are not combined with other immigrants from the same country of origin, reducing measurement error.

Combining this information with High School and Beyond, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988, I find that, on average, there is no effect of having more refugees on native’s academic achievement, there is a small increase in the likelihood of graduating from high school, and there is a small reduction in the likelihood of obtaining an associate degree. In addition, I use the National Assessment Educational Progress as a placebo to confirm that in 1971, before the inflow of refugees, there were no systematic differences in native academic achievement in the areas that got a higher share of refugees.