Opinion: Africa Is Sending Us Its Best and Brightest

Tyler Cowen, SF Gate, January 12, 2018

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One of the most striking facts, unbeknownst even to many immigration advocates, is the superior education of Africans coming to this country. Of adults ages 25 or older born in Africa and living here, 41.7 have a bachelor’s degree or more, according to 2009 data. For contrast, the native-born population has a bachelor’s degree or more at the much lower rate of only 28.1 percent in these estimates, and foreign-born adults as a whole have a college degree at the rate of 26.8 percent, both well below the African rate.

How about high school degrees? About one-third of immigrants overall lack this credential but only 11.7 percent of African-born migrants don’t have a high school degree—close to the estimated rate for native-born Americans, 11.4 percent.

Or consider Nigerian-Americans, Nigeria being Africa’s most populous nation: Their education levels are among the very highest in the U.S., above those of Asians, with 17 percent having a master’s degree.

About three-quarters of African migrants speak English, and they have above-average rates of labor force participation. They are also much less likely to commit violent crimes than native-born Americans.

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How about Norwegians? During America’s earlier age of mass migration starting in the late 19th century, we received many Norwegians. They were especially likely to come from low-skilled backgrounds; they had problems assimilating; and about 70 percent returned to their home country. If we compare the 16 immigrant groups from that time for which we have data, the Norwegians and the Portuguese did the worst in terms of wage gaps.

To be clear, I think this experiment with Norwegian migration has more than worked out all right, as Norwegian-Americans now have above average levels of income and assimilated extremely well. {snip}

It would be a mistake to look at these comparisons and conclude that somehow Africans are intrinsically superior to Norwegians. In fact, there is some pretty simple economic theory at work. The harder it is to get from one country to another, the more the immigration process selects for individuals who are especially ambitious and resourceful.

Economist Edward Lazear suggests a simple experiment: Consider immigrants to the U.S. from Algeria, Israel and Japan, and rank them in order of most to least educated. The correct answer? Algeria, Israel then Japan. That may be counterintuitive at first glance, but it’s easy to see how it works. If you are Algerian and educated, or aspire to be educated, your prospects in Algeria are relatively poor. A talented, educated person in Japan or Israel can do just fine by staying at home. These kinds of considerations explain about 73 percent of the variation in the educational outcomes of migrants.

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