Americans without college degrees earned more when immigration dipped under Trump, study found

College enrollment is dropping, creating a larger class of workers without degrees.

Published: July 30, 2023 11:04pm

Due to the rising costs of higher education and student debt, more Americans are skipping college. In fact, between 2019 and 2022 undergraduate college enrollment nationwide dropped 8 percent. And that has academics studying their earnings and workforce participation potential.

A recent report published by the Center for Immigration Studies found those Americans who skip college may make more money and are more likely to land jobs when immigration rates to the United States are lower.

After analyzing weekly earnings for full-time workers between 2012 and 2022, the researchers concluded that lower rates of immigration helped those without college degrees more during the Trump years when compared to the Obama and Biden eras.

“Real (inflation-adjusted) median weekly earnings for U.S.-born workers without a bachelor’s increased more quickly during the period of lower legal and illegal immigration from 2016 to 2019 than in periods of higher immigration before and after,” the study concluded.

The analysts cited Trump administration policies as one of the reasons why.

Between the fourth quarters of 2016 and 2019, inflation-adjusted weekly earnings for full-time, U.S.-born workers without a college degree grew by more than 3 percent, the study found.

During this time, the report noted, “growth in the total immigrant population (legal and illegal) averaged about 400,000 a year, compared to about 730,000 a year from 2012 to 2016, when earnings actually fell slightly for the less-educated U.S.-born.” (These are net migration figures. Another CIS report "estimated that net migration — the difference between the number of immigrants coming vs. leaving — averaged 953,000 from 2010 to 2017, but 525,000 from 2017 to 2019.")

However, since 2020 real earnings, “declined for virtually all workers,” the report said.

The authors wrote the dynamic “should give pause to those now calling for more immigration to reduce inflation by lowering wages further, particularly for lower-paid, less-educated Americans.”

The United States is home to more immigrants (45 million) than any other country. According to Pew, over the next 40 years, immigrants and their descendants are projected to account for a whopping 88 percent of the country’s population growth.

Immigrants, according to the Brookings Institution, are a net positive, because they “boost economic activity, promote innovation, and improve the productivity of native-born workers.”

And those immigrant workers fared well during the Obama-era surge of immigration, the new study found.

“Among immigrants (legal and illegal) without a bachelor’s,” the report said, “real median weekly earnings increased substantially from 2012 to 2016.”

In contrast, American-born workers without college degrees saw their wages fall backwards during the same period, dropping 0.2 percent in real earnings from 2012 to 2016, the study found.

The study also found evidence that Americans without college degrees were more likely to seek and land jobs in times of lower immigration.

"The labor force participation rate — the share of working-age adults employed or looking for work — also increased for the less-educated U.S.-born between the fourth quarters of 2016 and 2019," the authors wrote. "In contrast, there was little improvement in the years prior to 2016, after the rate bottomed out in 2013 as a result of the Great Recession

The study cautioned it is too early to draw long-term conclusions about the economic trend lines since wages and workforce participation are affected by a lot of other factors, including inflation, the pandemic and economic growth. But it said the decade snapshot of the Obama, Trump and Biden years should give policymakers a reason to dig deeper and to question the traditional logic that higher immigration is better for expanding the economy.

"Clearly, it is not 'inevitable' that immigration must rise during an expansion, as some have argued," the study noted. "Moreover, the combination of falling immigration and economic expansion seems to have been beneficial to less-educated workers, though at this point the evidence is only suggestive of that possibility."

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