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This paper examines the relationship between students' immigration status, their secondary-school performance, and the likelihood of their pursuing postsecondary education. Emphasis is placed on the gap in postsecondary-participation rates between students with and without immigrant backgrounds. The paper has three unique features. First, secondary-school performance as well as other well-established variables are used to explain differences in rates of postsecondary participation. Only recently have such data become available. Second, the paper focuses on postsecondary participation among low-performing secondary-school students as well as among all postsecondary students. Third, the paper contrasts the findings for Canada and Switzerland and discusses possible reasons for the different outcomes observed between them. These two countries in many ways reflect the differences between North America and Europe regarding immigrant outcomes.

In Switzerland, students with immigrant backgrounds, including both the first and second generations, typically have lower levels of postsecondary participation than students with Swiss backgrounds (the third-and-higher generations). This study finds that this difference can be accounted for almost entirely by poorer secondary-school performance, as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) literacy reading score, among students with immigrant backgrounds. This poorer secondary-school performance is explained in part by differences in family and socio-economic backgrounds of immigrant students compared with students with Swiss-born parents. In addition, there is significant variation in postsecondary participation across immigrant source regions. Students with immigrant backgrounds from European Union countries such as Germany, France, Belgium, and Austria tend to have higher levels of postsecondary participation than students with Swiss parents. Little of this positive gap is explained by the variables in the analysis, including secondary-school performance. Students with immigrant backgrounds from countries other than Germany, France, Belgium, and Austria have lower levels of postsecondary participation, with poorer secondary-school performance accounting for much of this.

Canadian outcomes are very different. Students with immigrant backgrounds, including both the first and second generations, have a much higher rate of postsecondary participation than their counterparts with Canadian-born parents. The explanatory variables in the analysis account for about one-half of the difference, with postsecondary aspirations among students and their parents accounting for the largest portion. Unlike in Switzerland, however, differences in secondary-school performance in Canada account for little of the difference in postsecondary-participation rates among students with and without immigrant backgrounds. Again, there is significant variation by immigrant source region. In particular, students with Asian immigrant backgrounds are much more likely to pursue postsecondary education than students with other immigrant backgrounds and students with Canadian-born parents, even if they perform poorly in secondary school.

Focusing specifically on students who were low performers in secondary school, one finds that the rate of postsecondary participation was lower in Switzerland than in Canada. In Canada, a relatively large share of low performers with immigrant backgrounds pursue a postsecondary education. Again, this is particularly true for low performers with Asian backgrounds, of whom two-thirds pursue a postsecondary education. About one-third of low-performing students with Canadian-born parents continue to the postsecondary level. PISA scores, family background, and aspirational variables account for one-third to one-half of the difference between these groups, with educational aspirations again playing the greatest role. In Switzerland, first-generation low-performing students are less likely to pursue postsecondary education than students with Swiss parents, and variables included in the analysis account for little of this gap: other unmeasured effects were at play.

Differences in parents' education play a small direct role in explaining differences in the postsecondary-participation rate between groups. However, this variable may act indirectly through secondary-school performance or parents' aspirations regarding the educational attainment of their children.

What explains the differences in outcomes between Canada and Switzerland? Differences in the immigration systems likely matter. The Canadian system emphasizes the selection of immigrants with high levels of education. Canadian immigrants have also tended to come from source regions, such as Asia, that place a high value on educational attainment and working in professional occupations. The Swiss immigration system has traditionally brought in lower-skilled immigrants—although this has been changing in recent years. These inter-country differences in immigrant characteristics will affect first- and second-generation educational outcomes in the two countries.

Differences in the education systems also play a role. The more structured Swiss system allows students less flexibility in their academic program as they advance through secondary school. Immigrant students are overrepresented in the lower academic streams, and this affects their likelihood of attending the postsecondary level. The Canadian school system does not have such a streaming process. However, Swiss students have access to strong vocational training at the secondary level; this negates the necessity to continue to the postsecondary level for many.

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