1The academic performance and orientation preferences of immigrants’ descendants in France, together with the degree to which they are segregated by school, were extensively studied in the 1990s thanks to new statistical data on primary and secondary students’ geographical origins (Vallet and Caille 1996; Vallet 1996; Felouzis 2003). In approaching what was in France a relatively new research topic, the tendency at the time was to list under a single heading the many possible situations of young people with immigrant backgrounds and their attitudes toward migration. Some of the students studied had immigrated with their parents while others were French-born children of immigrants or mixed couples. The notion of immigrant background became more inclusive when researchers began identifying immigrants’ descendants on the basis of language criteria (Vallet and Caille 1996) or cultural origin of first name (Felouzis 2003). The students in these analyses had not all experienced migration directly, creating heterogeneity further intensified by the criterion of French citizenship. To such intergenerational differences we may add differences in social and geographic origins. The research avenues opened by those studies can now be explored further by taking into account the diversity of family migration histories and qualifying the opposition between students of immigrant parents and others, i.e., the third generation, whose family experience of migration is less recent.
2Here I will be focusing in particular on the post-secondary school orientation preferences students express before passing France’s national high school leaving examination, the baccalauréat. While educational ambitions have often been studied in terms of class (Bourdieu and Passeron 1970; Boudon 1973; Willis 1978; Poullaouec 2010; André 2012) and gender (Duru-Bellat  2004; Baudelot and Establet  2005), the criterion of belonging to a family that migrated to France has not been studied as frequently, in part because until quite recently French public statistics offered little information on parents’ migration trajectories. Several quantitative studies (Vallet 1996; Caille 2007; Brinbaum and Kieffer 2009) suggest, however, that immigrant families have stronger academic ambitions than native ones, and this has been interpreted to mean that the families immigrated to achieve upward social mobility. The problem with that interpretation is that while it essentializes immigrant optimism and desire or determination to succeed (in education, in this case) it does not really take into account the social and historical conditions in which the family migrated. When children of “foreign origin” (Vallet and Caille 1996) or “allochthones” (Felouzis 2003) are lumped together in a single category, the risk is to underestimate the historical dimension of migration and the fact that it is rooted in constantly changing social configurations. The educational aspirations of immigrants’ descendants, the subject of this study, are not independent of time-situated education policies; in France those include policymakers’ decisions to prolong compulsory schooling or the goal set in 1985 by then Education Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement: a general high school qualification (baccalauréat) for 80% of each generation. In the current context of ensuring that all children are schooled, the above-mentioned aspirations depend more than ever on effectively guiding students in their educational choices (Cayouette-Remblière 2015). Moreover, immigration in France also has a history, one that, as Gérard Noiriel pointed out (1988), goes back much further than the post-war period and certainly did not end in 1974. France’s new immigrants are from increasingly diverse and distant places; their educational attainment levels are rising, and many are currently professionals or managers (Tavan 2005).
3Regarding the second generation, some sociologists (Sayad 1994; Santelli 2004) point out that there is a tendency to overestimate discontinuities between immigrant parents and their French-born children. While the children’s early immersion in French society does have effects, it does not justify assuming that these families’ migration trajectories have had no specific socialization effects. My analysis here echoes this warning. I aim to analyze in detail the genealogy of families with members who immigrated to France and to assess the effects of this on descendants’ educational aspirations. The survey protocol developed by INED and INSEE in 2008 allows for describing that genealogy in detail all the way back to grandparents. And thanks to the “Youth” questionnaire in appendix to the “Trajectories and Origins” survey (henceforth TeO), we can reconstitute the migration status of respondents’ parents and grandparents and their country/ies of birth, and thereby identify third-generation high school students.
4While there is nothing new about studying parents’ migration trajectories, there have been no studies to date in France of grandparents’ trajectories, and the undertaking is not a simple one. Sociologists of immigration seldom think of immigrants’ grandchildren as part of their research focus. Moreover, statistical surveys rank those children in the “majority” or “native” category.  If it seems surprising to refer to the third generation or immigrants’ grandchildren, this is surely because it clashes with the idea described by Gérard Noiriel (1988) of a specifically French-republican model of integration. The third generation is much more frequently studied in the United States, where it is generally aggregated into the larger group of “third plus” generations of descendants while also being studied as a subject in its own right (Alba et al. 2002; Logan and Shin 2012).
5As I see it there are several theoretical arguments in favor of studying immigrants’ grandchildren in the current French context. First, comparing them with their parents brings to light the drawbacks of an analysis of the French situation in terms of “assimilation.” The assumption behind the classic version of the assimilation paradigm (Park and Burgess 1921) is that differences between immigrants’ descendants and the rest of the population fade over the generations. From this perspective, immigrants’ grandchildren should be difficult to distinguish from the majority group when it comes to educational aspirations. Second, in this particular context it is important to distance ourselves from the issue of ethnic or racial discrimination, now a focal point in analyses of migration matters. Most recent studies on this question in France show that discrimination primarily affects descendants of North African or sub-Saharan African immigrants, grouped together under the term “visible minorities” (Beauchemin et al. 2010). The fact is that three-fourths of the immigrant grandparents of young adults residing in France today are of European origin, particularly Italian and Spanish, while only one-sixth were from African countries.
6To understand the singular attitude of immigrants’ grandchildren toward education, then, we have to be attentive to changes in the phenomenon of migration and in the French schooling system over the last half a century. Most grandparents of these student respondents arrived in France during the two decades of large-scale immigration that began in 1955 in a context of strong economic growth. At the time, the foreign-born workforce found themselves concentrated and segregated in the un-skilled, precarious segments of the labor market; many worked as unskilled manual laborers—a strong characteristic of this period. Above and beyond the mechanisms that implicitly ranked nationalities, foreigner status in France had far-reaching effects on social outcomes at the time, as much in terms of immigrants’ “paper traces” (Spire 2005; a reference to administrative records kept on foreigners in France) as their occupational trajectories (Bruno 2010; Pitti 2005). The children of these foreign workers were among the most directly affected by the French policy to prolong education initiated in the 1980s—a policy with mixed effects (Beaud 2003). These contextual features had lasting effects on the trajectories of individual immigrants and their children—strong enough to justify grouping the third generation in a separate analytic category here. By comparing the historical conditions in which grandparents and/or parents arrived in France and/or in which they grew up, we can characterize the social origin of high school student respondents, acquire a better understanding of their educational preferences, and develop a synthetic indicator of the students’ family histories—extremely useful given the difficulty of statistically measuring social origin on the sole basis of parents’ standardized occupation (Lahire 1995).
Box 1.—Data presentation
I used questionnaires completed by respondents aged 15 to 18 in middle or high school at the time of the survey, for a total of 1,455 individuals. This age bracket avoids bias due to departure from the parental home, increasingly common after age 18.  It also limits bias due to the presence of sibling respondents in the sample.  96.3% of respondents aged 15 to 18 were in school, and this percentage remains nearly the same regardless of students’ family experience of migration. Staying on at lower or upper secondary school beyond the compulsory age of 16 therefore seems to be the norm among the young people questioned, even if they do not always obtain a qualification.  In the 15–18 age bracket, those with jobs, looking for a job, or inactive but not in school are a minority in which immigrants’ descendants are not overrepresented; this explains my decision to leave those students out of the analysis. Last, I chose not to use weighting coefficients.
7A review of the literature on immigrant families’ educational aspirations demonstrates how the question has been formulated until now. I then present my analyses, based on the TeO survey. In the last two sections I discuss the results and suggest ways of interpreting them. My arguments focus on the explanatory role of migration-related social characteristics, characteristics that are difficult to measure by means of ordinary statistical surveys. Data on the social position of the family in the departure country is the first factor for producing differentiated attitudes toward higher education. The second concerns the particular trajectories of immigrants’ children who attended school in the 1980s, later becoming parents of the students questioned in the TeO survey.
Immigrants’ optimism about education and how to interpret it
8Immigration as the driver of educational ambitions is a valid interpretation in the United States and has been corroborated by some French studies. I now review theoretical and empirical support for this interpretation, as well as its drawbacks. American sociologists have proceeded by comparing immigrants and their descendants with the receiving society majority. The classic Chicago School paradigm began with the assumption that the distinctive features of an immigrant population are gradually effaced over the generations (Park and Burgess 1921). That paradigm was reformulated by a group of researchers attentive to the various dimensions— cultural, marital, civic, identity-related, and others—of the assimilation process (Gordon 1964) and possible non-alignment or conflict between those dimensions, the latter idea leading to the development of segmented assimilation theory (Portes and Zhou 1993). The fact that, with socioeconomic and ethnic or racial characteristics controlled for, immigrants and their children do better in school than natives is an empirical datum that contradicts the classic paradigm of assimilation in the United States (Palacios, Guttmannova and Chase-Lansdale 2008; Harris et al. 2008; White and Glick 2009). Differences in access to higher education by migration experience are a good illustration of that general result. Immigrant blacks are more likely than native blacks to be enrolled in selective North American universities,  and these differences are only partially explained by differences in socioeconomic means (Bennett and Lutz 2009). Moreover, within a given ethnic or racial group and with social situation controlled for, first- and second-generation immigrants are more likely than natives to be admitted to university (Hagy and Staniec 2002). This suggests that academic success is directly linked to the experience of migration and operates independently of ethno-racial specificities, as the same gap is found within the Latin American and Asian communities.
9This “paradox” (Greenman 2013) is often attributed to immigrant families having stronger educational aspirations than native ones. According to data from the 1988 American National Education Longitudinal Study, immigrants and the second generation are more optimistic than others about higher education, with ethnic or racial category controlled for (Kao and Tienda 1995). However, empirical evidence for a direct causal link between educational ambitions and academic performance is lacking. The stronger aspirations of immigrants and their children are therefore not enough in and of themselves to explain the fact that in the American context these groups do better in school (Greenman 2013). To interpret this discrepancy, Roselyn A. Mickelson (1990) distinguished analytically between “abstract” attitudes, expressing a belief in education as a factor in positive social outcomes generally, and “concrete” attitudes, related to circumstances and reflecting a belief in the benefit of further education for the social group the student belongs to. The fact is that abstract attitudes are not much use in accounting for variations in academic performance (Carter 2005).
10Some French studies confirm the hypothesis that having migrated leads people to be optimistic about higher education, but the debate in France is defined in different terms—for two reasons. First, there is no institutional recognition in France of ethno-racial membership as used in American studies. Because of France’s particular history, no category of this type has been constructed or reified, contrary to the situation in the United States (Blum 2002). This dimension is therefore absent from French statistical and empirical studies of educational ambitions. Second the American paradox of higher academic performance by second-generation students than natives is not found in French data. A study based on the criterion of not repeating a year in school and students’ educational preferences in their first year of high school suggested that immigrants’ children succeed better than natives’ when social background and family characteristics are controlled for (Vallet 1996). However, the conclusions of more recent analyses of second-generation students’ academic performance on standardized tests  are not as clear-cut: situations differ by schooling level, and the finding is lower primary school test scores on average for immigrants’ children than natives from similar social backgrounds (Levels, Dronkers and Kraaykamp 2008; Ichou 2013). The “excess” educational aspirations among immigrant families do constitute a robust finding in French studies, however. A pioneering study of the 1989 Panel of secondary students (Vallet 1996) took into account the length of education parents desired for their children and found that foreign nationality had a positive effect on the desire for children to remain in education to age 20 or beyond. According to the 1995 panel study, with social and family characteristics controlled for, second-generation students are more likely than children of native French families to want to pursue higher education (Caille 2007). And a survey of neighborhoods in the Île-de-France region confirms the last observation on the basis of contextualized data (Ichou and Oberti 2014).
11The main explanation put forward until now is that having migrated is a source of academic motivation: people who emigrate, who make the sacrifices implied in doing so, are people with high hopes and expectations: “The desire for a better life and upward social mobility has often been a major motivation in families’ decision to emigrate. … [Those families] may perceive investment in education as the main means available to them to achieve upward social mobility” (Vallet 1996: 9). The notion that the “migration project” is a source of strong academic ambitions is nonetheless not of much heuristic use in the framework of causal reasoning since what we want to explain (educational aspirations) is already partly contained in the explanatory variable (desire to succeed in school linked to migration). Because this reasoning is circular it cannot be empirically tested, and this is an incentive to revise the interpretive frame. The present article aims to probe what the migration characteristics coded for in statistical surveys actually measure. This approach can only be applied if we have detailed information on families’ geographical trajectories.
Variety of migration histories and variations in educational ambitions: main findings
12Deconstructing a reified representation of immigrants’ attitudes to the education system means taking into account the geographic space and historical period in which migration took place. The aim of this study is to compare high school students whose family migration pasts differ chronologically and measure the effects of this on educational ambitions. Students born in France to immigrant parents can be distinguished first from those born outside France who immigrated in childhood. In this way we separate the first generation, born as foreigners,  from the second generation, born in France to immigrant parents. Within the second generation I have distinguished between children of mixed and non-mixed couples.  The fourth and last group, individuals born in France to French-born parents but who have at least one immigrant grandparent, cannot be identified in earlier French surveys. Ascendants’ foreign nationality is, in my opinion, the most important variable for understanding immigrant parents’ and grandparents’ integration into the labor market in France and consequently their descendants’ attitudes toward pursuing higher education. Ascendants born in France’s overseas départements did of course participate in postcolonial migration but they are different from immigrants because they already had French citizenship and therefore ready access to civil servant status. The findings for this small group fall outside my research problematic and are only presented here for contrast purposes. Ultimately, I obtained the following five-modality variable, which distinguishes between students whose parents migrated at different periods:
- immigrants: young people themselves born abroad (or in an overseas département) who arrived in France in childhood;
- children of immigrants: young people born in metropolitan France to two immigrant parents (or parents born in (an) overseas département(s));
- children of mixed couples: young people born to one immigrant parent (or parent born in an overseas département) and one parent born in metropolitan France;
- grandchildren of immigrant(s): young people born in metropolitan France to parents born in metropolitan France and who have at least one immigrant grandparent (or grandparent born in an overseas département);
- none of the above: young people of the majority group; i.e., whose families have no recent experience of migration.
13The data also include information on young respondents’ origins; that is, the country (or geographical region) their parents and/or grandparents were born.  After coding respondents and adjusting the sample, we see that individuals who have themselves migrated or have an indirect connection to that experience through parents or grandparents represent approximately one-third of the total sample population aged 15 to 18 (see Table 1). This finding is close to Noiriel’s estimate (1988, p. 10), cited as a reminder that immigration is a phenomenon internal to contemporary French society. Distribution by region of origin reflects the recent history of immigration to France. The positioning of the different migration waves in time and history has left its mark on the composition of descendant categories.  Over half of the third generation belong to families originally from southern Europe—almost all from Italy or Spain—by way of at least one grandparent. According to the relevant censuses, from 1954 to 1968 one-third of the non-French population were Italians.  Usually they arrived by way of the National immigration office (ONI); they belonged to a relatively old migration history and were therefore treated more favorably than other groups by the authorities in charge of granting residence and work permits (Spire 2005). Following the ONI accord with Spain established in 1961, Spanish immigrants began arriving in massive numbers. This was a labor migrant population, supervised by Franco’s government through the Spanish Catholic Church. It included more women than other foreign populations at the time, a considerable number of whom worked in domestic service. Another 20% of the third generation are also of European origin, mostly Polish; one-sixth are originally from North Africa, primarily Algeria. When the Algerian grandparents of these students arrived in France they were often unskilled in a context where foreign workforces were concentrated in particularly low-paid production activities.
Region of origin and family relationship to migration
Region of origin and family relationship to migrationPopulation: Young people in school aged 15 to 18
Note: The weighted percentages give an approximate value for the proportion of the given category in the population at large. They differ from raw percentages (calculated on the basis of observed group sizes) since children of immigrants were overrepresented in the TeO sample.
14Obviously the immigrant parents of young TeO respondents arrived in France later than any immigrant grandparents, and they are from a wider range of emigration lands. More are from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Whereas Italian and Spanish waves subsided somewhat in the 1970s, arrivals from North Africa and Portugal continued strong, due among other things to the family reunification policies that began to be applied. Immigrants from Asia and sub-Saharan Africa only began to arrive in great numbers in the 1990s. Young first-, second- and third-generation immigrants differ in that their ascendants came at different times and from different areas. These two dimensions, though correlated, are differentiated when it comes to interpretation.
15The chronology of family migration and region of origin were simultaneously controlled for in the following statistical analyses. I separately measured effects related to the period of arrival and effects that have more to do with the geographic departure area, taking all the necessary interpretive precautions.  What is new here is measuring modulation in educational aspirations by whether family migration experience goes back to grandparents or parents, though this distinction clearly does not exhaust the variety of family configurations or their singular chronologies. In the following models, an educational ambitions indicator is used as a dependent variable (see Box 2). The independent or explanatory variables are how far in the past the migration experience occurred,  geographic origin, sex, age, father’s socio-occupational category, mother’s educational attainment, and two indicators of academic history: having repeated at least one year and type of high school attended (vocational versus general or technological). The students questioned were in objectively different academic positions and this in turn influenced the way they saw their future orientation (Cayouette-Remblière 2015). By introducing academic situation control variables, I was able to compare individuals with similar schooling trajectories who nevertheless do not view higher education the same way. I began with the assumption that student’s socialization within the family in connection with the higher education imperative also depended on parents’ and grandparents’ migration and socio-occupational trajectories and that those two trajectories cannot be dissociated. The influence of social background on the construction of educational aspirations is therefore central to this study. What is new here is the more extensive meaning of “social origin” attained by combining it with migration characteristics; and the fact of not restricting it to the usual statistical indicators of parents’ occupational category/ies and educational attainment level(s) in France.
Box 2.—Measuring educational aspirations and limitations of the measuring methods
The main indicator I used is whether or not the respondent wishes to pursue higher education after graduating from high school. This indicator has the advantage of representing wishes expressed by students themselves rather than their parents, in contrast to most earlier quantitative studies (Vallet 1996; Poullaouec 2010; Brinbaum and Kieffer 2009). The question was formulated thus: “Do you want to 1) end your schooling before obtaining the baccalauréat? 2) get your baccalauréat and then stop? 3) pursue your education after high school? and 4) It’s too early to say.” The question refers to a specific student orientation stage: the last year of high school, a means of avoiding reporting biases associated with more general questions referring to continuing education “as long as possible,” as these may lead to interpreting responses differently by respondent’s social origin (Orange 2012). Response categories 1, 2 and 4 were grouped together to obtain a binary variable contrasting respondents wishing to pursue their education beyond high school and all others. 71% of the total sample fell into the former case, with considerable variation by high school stream: only half of vocational high school students want to pursue higher education. While the vast majority of French upper secondary school students now share the objective of obtaining the baccalauréat, the desire to move on to higher education is a discriminating criterion and is therefore useful in accounting for differences in students’ educational ambitions. I later refine the analysis by taking into account students who choose not to choose (“It’s too early to say”).
The heterogeneity of educational aspirations in terms of length goes together with differences in how the distinct types of post-secondary education are ranked in France. This phenomenon has been observed in secondary education since the 1960s when mass education began (Œuvrard 1979; Bourdieu and Champagne 1992; Ichou and Vallet 2011; Palheta 2012), and it now extends to higher education due to the prolonging of education in France (Convert 2003; Albouy and Wanecq 2003; Orange 2013). Social and academic recruitment of students reflects how the “space” of higher education is structured (Convert 2003). Post-secondary school orientation preferences thus provide additional information on high school students’ attitudes toward higher education. The “Youth” survey questionnaire distinguishes between four types of study programs: Instituts Universitaires de Technologie (IUT) and Sections de Technicien Supérieur (STS); general university programs; Classes Préparatoires aux Grandes Écoles [schools preparing students for admission to elite training institutions], and all other types of training, notably schools that recruit directly after high school. Only single, exclusive choices (one type mentioned)— the vast majority—were taken into account in constructing the response categories corresponding to the four types of higher education. Another category, distinct from the others, contains students wishing to pursue higher education but who do not yet know what type.
16The first striking finding is that immigrants’ grandchildren have significantly weaker educational aspirations than immigrants’ children and majority group students.  Moreover, my data do not support a difference in ambition level between immigrants’ children and majority group students.  This finding emerges from a binary logistic regression (see Figure 1) that models the likelihood of a student wishing to pursue higher education rather than not or being indecisive. It is further detailed by way of a multinomial logistic regression table (Figure 2) in which clear and less decisive responses are contrasted and which differentiates situations by preferred type of higher education. According to Figure 1, immigrants’ grandchildren are 19% less likely than majority group students and 25% less likely than immigrants’ children to want to pursue higher education rather than not, or being indecisive. Figure 2 specifies that the level of these odds ratios is explained by the stronger probability that immigrants’ grandchildren will answer indecisively the question on wishing to pursue higher education or not. In other words, according to the multinomial model, third-generation students are more reserved about higher education than other categories, but the probability of their wishing to end their formal education as soon as they obtain the baccalauréat is not significantly different from that for immigrants’ children and the majority group. Last, the disparity in educational aspirations between immigrants’ grandchildren and immigrants’ children is reflected in a higher propensity among the latter to want to attend university. The fact is that university studies are difficult to characterize in terms of academic legitimacy and social recruitment (Convert 2003). Students from working-class backgrounds are likely to shun them as they are reputed to require a strong ability to work independently and often involve traveling a considerable geographical distance. These students often prefer STS programs, which they see as “lower level” higher education, more accessible to them (Orange 2013). Moreover, some young high school graduates enroll in university without having any clear idea why—the expression of a kind of “social fantasy” (Mauger 1998) rather than a realistic educational project. Last, it is important to qualify the observation that immigrants’ grandchildren have lower educational ambitions. These high school students are less likely to want to continue their education after high school but they do not entirely exclude that possibility. They are likely instead to defer the decision. Moreover, they less frequently want to undertake study programs whose prestige level is uncertain. This means that their attitude is characterized more by a kind of caution about higher education than by lower educational ambitions.
Binary logistic regression on probability of wanting to pursue post-secondary education (log-odds)
Binary logistic regression on probability of wanting to pursue post-secondary education (log-odds)Population: Young persons aged 15 to 18 in school
Reading: With other variables controlled for, girls are 1.25 times more likely than boys to want to pursue post-secondary education rather than not to or to be undecided.
Notes: Confidence intervals are given for a confidence threshold of 95%. I chose to present the log-odds so that the graph representation would not be deformed by the magnitude of effects associated with explanatory variables. To obtain odds ratios it suffices to calculate the exponential function of the log-odds in the figure.
17The second important finding here is that with all variables controlled for, students whose families are from North Africa or Southeast Asia have higher educational aspirations than those whose families are from southern Europe. According to Figure 1, the likelihood of wanting to pursue higher education is higher for those two groups. Respondents whose family emigrated from a North African country are 1.24 times more likely than their schoolmates of southern European origin to do so. Along with this difference, North African students are less likely to wish to end their education with the baccalauréat than students of southern European background, according to the multinomial model (Figure 2). As for students of Southeast Asian background, they are 1.38 times more likely than students of southern European background to want to pursue higher education rather than not or to be undecided, with social characteristics (in France) and academic characteristics controlled for. Thus, the disparities related to region of origin are maintained when we leave aside self-reported undecided students, limiting the focus to clear-cut responses. Last, the probability of wanting to attend university is higher among students of North African origin than students of southern European origin. Differences in educational ambitions by migration origin therefore show as unequal levels of attraction to university studies.
Multinomial logistic regression on probability of wanting to pursue higher education, not wanting to or being undecided (average marginal effects)
Multinomial logistic regression on probability of wanting to pursue higher education, not wanting to or being undecided (average marginal effects)Population: Young persons aged 15 to 18 in school
Reading: With other variables controlled for, students of North African origin are less likely than students of southern European origin not to want to pursue post-secondary education.
Notes: All variables presented in Figure 1 are also controlled for in this model (sex, age, father’s occupation, mother’s educational attainment, student’s academic situation). Confidence intervals are for a 95% confidence threshold.
18We can now attempt to interpret these two findings, which are not independent of each other despite the fact that I shall discuss them consecutively. In both cases, orientation wishes can be related to the social attributes of immigrant families, properties that are not fully summed up by parents’ aggregated educational level and socio-occupational category, though those are the variables most routinely used. Describing students’ social backgrounds in finer detail implies being attentive to the pre-migration resources they inherited from their family and the historical conditions in which their ascendants arrived in France. I first discuss the finding on effect of geographic origin on educational aspirations and then handle in greater detail the matter of immigrants’ grandchildren’s indecision on whether or not to pursue post-secondary education.
The invisibility of pre-migration resources inherited by immigrants’ children
19My analyses show that country of origin is an explanatory factor of educational ambition in high school. This point confirms the findings of earlier studies in France (Vallet 1996; Caille 2007). Contrasts by origin are also found for the United States, where the geographic proximity factor is cited to account for the persistent gap in investment in education between families of Mexican origin, who could easily return to the home country, and Asian families, who would find it more costly to return. According to some authors, planning to settle permanently in the receiving country induces a strong will to succeed in school as doing so will facilitate integration into the country’s job market (Hao and Bonstead-Bruns 1998). However, the impact of geographic distance from home country on educational aspirations might be due instead to a family’s social resources rather than their migration plans. Immigrants originally from countries that are distant from the US (Asia, for example) are also strongly “selected” in terms of educational attainment, and this in turn would explain their higher educational achievement (Feliciano 2005) and possibly their greater ambitions. Moreover, focusing primarily on the distance variable leads to neglecting differences between individuals from neighboring countries or even the same country. Well-off urban families from Algeria intend to settle longer in France than those from rural areas of the same country, and this in turn has strong implications for educational strategies. The first group attaches greater importance to their children’s academic achievement in France while the second are more concerned to maintain close ties with the home country, returning regularly for visits (Zeroulou 1988).
20In France the idea that immigrants’ socioeconomic profiles vary by country of origin is one approach to interpreting differences in academic achievement and aspirations (Levels, Dronkers and Kraaykamp 2008; Ichou 2014). It accounts for differentials in economic and cultural capital by emigration area, resources that social position in the receiving country does not fully reflect. This differential may be what accounts for the differences in educational ambitions found by the TeO survey between students of North African or Asian origin and students of southern European origin. An earlier analysis (Ichou 2013: 34), based on the main TeO questionnaire, compares adult immigrants by father’s occupation in the home country. It shows that immigrants born in southern Europe (most in Portugal) more often had fathers who were manual workers or farmers than managers or in mid-level occupations, compared to immigrants born in Southeast Asia or North Africa. This difference holds when there is no change in occupation in France. In other words, these immigrants’ socio-occupational category in France is not a reliable reflection of their social position in the country they were born in or the resources associated with that position, particularly cultural resources. My analyses of the same data contribute complementary descriptive elements. A considerable majority of immigrants lived in cities in their home country: only 15% of immigrants questioned in the TeO survey were children of farmers or farmworkers. The proportion of manager, liberal profession, mid-level occupation or self-employed fathers in the home country, meanwhile, brings to light contrasts in social recruitment between immigrant groups. For Portugal and Spain the figure is below 15%; it is 20% for Italy; whereas for each of the North African countries (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia) it is between 25% and 30%. And for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia it is over 35%.
21This information on pre-migration social status is generally not statistically recorded, though it could well be the cause of variable dispositions to pursue higher education, with parents’ cultural capital from the home country affecting children’s recognized academic skills and orientation preferences. This statistical invisibility facilitates slippage toward culturalist interpretations of immigrants’ descendants’ attitudes toward the educational system whereas social reproduction theories might be sufficient to account for the observed differences. The invisible pre-migration capital of families of high social origin is measured indirectly by home region in that this situation is found more frequently for migrants from North Africa or Asia than for southern European migrants. The structure of educational aspirations among immigrants’ descendants by country of origin is strongly homologous with that of immigrants’ pre-migration social attributes.
22It is not my purpose here to test the robustness of this hypothesis by measuring pre-migration resources at the individual level more directly. In this connection we have a study supported by more appropriate data (Ichou 2014). In the TeO survey’s “Youth” module, ascendants’ occupation in the home country is noted only for children of immigrants in an already restricted sample and by means of a standardized nomenclature not well adapted to national specificities. The data used here nonetheless allow us to argue the same point differently because they distinguish immigrants’ grandchildren from their children. The discrepancy between pre-migration resources and post-migration social position may be less marked in families who moved to France a relatively long time ago, since generational succession may have enabled those families to overcome the gap between inherited dispositions and social status. Due to early schooling in France and easier acquisition of French citizenship, the children of immigrants may have an easier time becoming integrated into the French job market than today’s immigrants, despite the mechanisms of discrimination that often limit that integration (Meurs and Pailhé 2010; Aeberhardt et al. 2010).  If we assume that pre-migration resources have their own effect, then immigrants’ grandchildren’s educational aspirations should be lower than those of immigrants’ children once parents’ occupation and educational attainment in France have been controlled for. This can be checked by means of a model that includes the effect of interaction between geographic origin and how long ago the family migrated (Figure 3).
23The model was estimated for all immigrants’ descendants, but only the results for the three best-represented regions in the sample —North Africa, southern Europe and other Europe—are presented in Figure 3.  Among high school students of North African origin, immigrants’ children are 3.7 times more likely than immigrants’ grandchildren to want to pursue higher education rather than not to or to be undecided. The third generation’s more reserved attitude toward continuing their education is therefore manifest for this group. It is less so for students of European origin. Differences in educational ambition between immigrants’ grandchildren and immigrants’ children are not as pronounced as for students of North African origin. This also holds for the gap between immigrants’ grandchildren and children of mixed couples.
Binary logistic regression modeling the probability of wanting to pursue higher education and taking into account interaction effects between region of origin and time elapsed since family migration (odds ratios)
Binary logistic regression modeling the probability of wanting to pursue higher education and taking into account interaction effects between region of origin and time elapsed since family migration (odds ratios)Population: Young people aged 15 to 18 in school
Reading: With other variables controlled for, the odds of grandchildren of European immigrants wanting to pursue higher education are closer to those of children of European immigrants wanting to do so than are the odds of grandchildren of North African immigrants to those of children of North African immigrants.
Notes: All variables presented in Figure 1 (sex, age, father’s occupation, mother’s educational attainment, academic situation) are also controlled for in this model. Confidence intervals are for a threshold of 95%.
24These findings are consistent with my earlier conclusions here. The educational aspirations of second-generation North Africans are optimistic given the social position of their parents in France, but this can be explained by their social position in the home country and their cultural resources, often poorly recorded in surveys, as noted. Third-generation North Africans on the other hand have less in the way of invisible pre-migration resources as their parents were able to convert them in France through intergenerational upward social mobility. The differential also is probably explained by the fact that Algerian migrants recently arrived in France are more sharply socially selected than those who came before the 1970s (Ichou 2014). The surplus of educational ambition found for descendants of North African immigrants therefore characterizes the second generation. Second- and third-generation European migrants are not as affected by this “catch up” phenomenon because those who migrated with their families were more often of modest social background in the home country and occupy a socio-occupational position more similar to that background in France than second generations of North African origin. This is particularly the case for students of Portuguese origin, who constitute the majority of southern European migrants’ children questioned. The statistical artifact is not operative for European immigrants from non-southern countries, who are in a fairly privileged social position in France and are therefore not much affected by first-generation status fall phenomena. Frequently from western European countries such as Belgium and the United Kingdom or, to a lesser degree, from eastern Europe, immigrant parents of European origin comprise a high proportion of manager fathers and higher education graduate mothers. This explains the slighter gap in this group between second-generation and third-generation educational aspirations. A corollary to this finding is that the differences observed between students of North African origin and European origin are marked in the second generation but tend to fade in the third.
25While the notion of pre-migration resources enables us to account for the afore-cited excess educational ambition among immigrants’ children (Caille 2007), it has much less to tell us about third-generation students’ reservations about higher education compared to other students. Being attentive to the blind spots of statistical coding for social background based on the usual socio-economic indicators will help us in interpreting this second finding.
Long-term effects of lengthy education in immigrant families
26The third generation’s relative reluctance to pursue higher education may be interpreted in connection with the history of immigration and the major changes in schooling policy in France that were implemented in the second half of the twentieth century. There are two competing interpretations of the result, to be assessed using what we know of the social and economic context of the reference period.
27The first possible interpretive approach is the theory of downward assimilation, which draws on recent reformulations of the assimilation paradigm (Portes and Zhou 1993) in the American context. Here emphasis is on the experience of social status fall among immigrants’ descendants due to their segregation in disadvantaged residential zones and the weakest segments of the economy (Safi 2011). This perspective is grounded in the hypothesis that persistent mechanisms of discrimination and exclusion are at work due to racial prejudice against people of immigrant origin, and that this leads those people to gradually interiorize a dominated position within the receiving society, including its school system. It follows from this hypothesis that immigrants’ grandchildren are more concentrated than immigrants’ children in disadvantaged neighborhoods and schools and are more acutely conscious of the exclusion mechanisms affecting them. This interpretation does not hold up when applied to the high school students interviewed in the TeO survey. In the current French context, the people primarily affected by discrimination (Beauchemin et al. 2010) are descendants of North African and sub-Saharan African immigrants, who account for only one-sixth of the third generation attending school in the 2000s. Furthermore, analyses of residential segregation among immigrant groups in France contradict the idea that spatial isolation increases with amount of time in France (Safi 2009). The downward assimilation hypothesis therefore does not satisfactorily account for the facts observed here. Moreover, it is difficult to apply in the framework of educational aspirations rather than enacted attitudes. For France, then, and for America as well, we should be extremely cautious in interpreting disparities in educational aspirations as objective inequalities, as there is nothing to indicate that the wish to pursue higher education constitutes an asset in itself. This is so first because there are several obstacles between wishing to pursue a given orientation and actually doing so (e.g., the conseil de classe, where teachers and administrators decide if the student can go on to the next year; failing the baccalauréat leaving examination; failing out of first year in university, and so forth.). Second, because the return on higher education varies widely by discipline; some study programs in France can be thought of as a way of delaying the young person’s at best uncertain integration into the labor market (Mauger 1998). The “second schooling explosion” in France (Poullaouec and Lemêtre 2009) gave rise to research into the educational aspirations students formulate in this new context (Beaud 2002; Convert 2003; Orange 2013; Cayouette-Remblière 2015).  Though educational qualifications continue to protect young adults of working-class origin from unemployment (Poullaouec 2010), strong post-secondary school educational aspirations are no longer systematically the sign of distinctive social resources. It would therefore be misguided to interpret immigrants’ grandchildren’s hesitation about pursuing higher education as a sign of their dominated position within the French school system.
28The second approach involves taking into account the histories of immigration and the educational system in France. It is based on the observation that most third-generation students interviewed in the TeO survey are from families who arrived in France during the migration peak that began in the 1950s. Their immigrant grandparent(s) settled in France at a time of massive state-regulated hiring of foreign workers (Spire 2005) where some immigrants may have found themselves in under-skilled jobs in unstable labor market sectors due to their foreign nationality (Bruno 2010). If we consider the connecting generation, i.e., children of post-war immigrants who later became parents of the high school students interviewed in the TeO survey, most of them (80%) belong to cohorts born between 1960 and 1970 (the ones used for the calculations in Table 2 below). Two-thirds of their fathers were manual workers and twice as many of them had a father who was an unskilled worker than did children of native French in the same cohorts. Given the hardship and demeaning nature of their parents’ jobs, these individuals were especially inclined to flee manual labor and reject short vocational programs. Born in the 1960s, many were implicated in the move toward more lengthy education that rapidly developed in the 1980s. Whereas in 1982–1983 only 42% of 18-year-olds were in the first level of higher education, by the early 1990s the figure was over 80% (DARES 2011). Within this connecting generation, nearly twice as many immigrants’ children of working-class background obtained higher education degrees than children of native French. They were overrepresented among the “higher educated despite ourselves” described by Stéphane Beaud (2002), avoiding vocational programs yet only half acculturated to French educational norms and more directly exposed to failure in higher education. At the first higher education level, more immigrants’ children than other students from the same social backgrounds dropped out or failed to obtain the qualification (Brinbaum and Guégnard 2012). And the members of this connecting generation who did obtain a higher education degree were not as effectively protected from unemployment as children of non-immigrant manual workers (see Table 2), though this finding is less than robust due to the small sample (p-value = 0.13). In a context of rising unemployment (youth unemployment topped 25% in the early 1990s), children of manual worker immigrants were forced to become aware of the mechanisms of domination at work in higher education, and theirs was a “collective experience of the devaluing of educational degrees” (Convert 2003: 68), an awareness that they then may have transmitted to their children. This would explain why the third generation, born in the 1990s and questioned at the end of the 2000s, expressed greater reserve about pursuing higher education than other students. By contrast, TeO survey high school students whose parents rather than grandparents immigrated have a family history that does not predispose them as much to disillusionment about higher education. Families in this group migrated later: 75% after 1975. Like the workers who arrived after the war, many of the immigrants in these families found themselves in precarious, under-qualified jobs. But few of them had been schooled in France so they had not experienced the difficulties of new high school graduates taking on higher education without knowing where it will lead or the disappointment that such a trajectory may cause. This would explain why, influenced by their parents, the second generation show greater enthusiasm for pursuing higher education than the third, with social and academic characteristics controlled for.
Characteristics of parents of high school students (cohorts born in the 1960s)
Characteristics of parents of high school students (cohorts born in the 1960s)Population: Persons born in metropolitan France between 1960 and 1970.
Reading: The father of 61.1% of persons born in France in the 1960s to at least one immigrant parent was a manual worker.
29This explanation, based on our knowledge of recent history, would of course be strengthened if we had statistical data on the different periods. In addition, it attributes considerable influence to parents in determining students’ orientations, leaving aside other socialization agents such as peer group and education as an institution. However, this interpretation offers the advantage of rendering intelligible a finding on immigrants’ grandchildren that has resisted the arguments usually cited in sociology of immigration.
30* * *
31Returning to the question of immigrants’ descendants’ educational aspirations involves probing how migration and social mobility trajectories fit together within families. The TeO survey and the statistics collected on the geographical trajectories of ascendants, including grandparents, make it possible to describe family migration histories in some detail. From the preceding analyses it appears that the variables generally used to code social origin are not sufficient to account for high school students’ stated orientation preferences. Migration characteristics—specifically, geographic origin and how long ago the family migrated—also influence these choices. And the effect of migration origin on educational ambitions cannot be interpreted exclusively as the result of a wish to succeed academically induced by sacrifices made at the time of migration. In fact, the above-cited attribute informs on the social contexts in which students live and study, usefully supplementing the indications provided by the variables of father’s occupation and mother’s educational attainment. The experience of migration and the status of foreigner have strong implications for socio-occupational trajectory. Migrating from one country to another can cause a fall in social status, which in turn explains why a migrant’s occupation in France may not correspond to the dispositions inherited in the country of origin. Immigrants from North Africa and Southeast Asia, usually of high social background, are particularly affected by this mechanism. The transmission of pre-migration social resources may therefore explain in part the excess educational ambition found for the second generation by earlier analyses (Vallet 1996; Caille 2007; Brinbaum and Kieffer 2009).
32Furthermore, the hypothesis that in families that migrated a relatively long time ago differences in educational aspirations tend to fade is contradicted by findings on the third generation: they are collectively more hesitant to pursue higher education than majority group students. American sociology, usually attentive to variations by generation in migrant families, proves of limited use in accounting for this finding, which in France concerns a population not particularly affected by ethno-racial discrimination. Reviewing the recent history of immigration and changes in the French schooling system leads to a different interpretation. The connecting second generation, made up of individuals born in the 1960s who later became parents of the students questioned in the TeO survey, were directly affected by 1980s policies for prolonging education among the working class. Their relative openness to higher education, combined with France’s unchanged educational hierarchies and rising unemployment, may well have created a feeling of disappointment among the second generation that in turn led the third to have stronger reservations about higher education. In this analysis, because migration origin combines with singular socio-economic trajectories that the usual statistical indicators do not effectively identify, it remains a relevant criterion for analyzing high school students’ orientation preferences.
33More generally, taking into account immigrants’ grandchildren—the third generation—requires us to rethink the relationship between educational trajectories and immigration; specifically, to reject analyses in terms of ethno-racial discrimination, since 75% of the group in question is of foreign European origin. It also implies being more attentive to the historical dimension. In addition to the variety of their social and geographic origins, the third generation differ from the second generation by the historical context in which their families migrated. Studying the changes that have occurred in French society in the last decades—namely, prolonged education and the streaming of higher education, which affected immigrant family trajectories differently depending on arrival period—is therefore essential if we wish to understand disparities between these two groups. Here I have worked to interpret the findings in light of these changes, my main concern being to avoid immobilizing immigrants in a timeless and as it were external relationship to the society they live in.
Translated by Amy Jacobs with the support of CNRS-INSHS.
I have borrowed this terminology from American research, which uses the words “mainstream” or “native.” That terminology has become fairly common in France, and in the TeO survey this group stands as a full-fledged statistical category.
The TeO survey uses the definition of France’s High Council for Integration: an immigrant is any person born non-French outside France.
Minors not living with their parents represent a very small proportion of this age bracket (approximately one-thousandth, according to French census data).
Fixed effect models of sibling groups make it possible to escape these types of bias. The models are too sophisticated to be presented in this article.
According to the French Ministry of Education (Memo 12.15), 11.9% of young people aged 18 to 24 “left school early” in 2011; i.e., ended their schooling without a qualification or only a middle-school completion certificate and did not enroll in a training program.
Since racial identity is collected by the United States census, the situation of first-generation and second-generation black Americans (respectively immigrants and immigrants’ children) is compared to that of the “third plus” generations, called “natives.”
Standardized tests include national-level assessments on entry into primary and lower secondary school, scores on the (non compulsory) examination at the end of middle school, and academic skills as measured by the PISA global education survey.
Persons born French outside France were not defined as immigrants in the survey.
In the case of single-parent or blended families, the migration past of the young person’s family is described as the migration trajectory of the two parents, even when the young person is no longer living with one of them. This was possible thanks to information on the first spouse or partner of the parent questioned in the main TeO survey. A few young people— fifty in all—were removed from the sample because they were not the child of the questioned parent’s first or current union and characteristics of the parent they do not live with were not available.
This material cannot be coded without a loss of information because only one region of origin can be noted. There are few cases of the two parents or grandparents being from different regions (with the exception of metropolitan France) due to the endogamy characteristic of immigrants and the second generation in France (Collet and Régnard 2011); only 2.5% of the young people questioned fell into this category. In those cases I chose the mother’s side given the preponderance of mothers in children’s primary socialization.
Migration flow size and how long ago the migration occurred do not predict the number of descendants who grew up in France. Other parameters come into play, such as frequency of return migration and fertility characteristics (number of children, parents’ age(s) at first birth) and may vary by origin group.
The contextual information that follows was drawn from Ralph Schor 1996 and Marie-Claude Blanc-Chaléard 2001.
Students in the so-called majority group are constructed as being from metropolitan France so the two migration variables used are perfectly collinear for these response categories. There is no coefficient associated with them because they are all reference responses. Another response category (southern Europe) was chosen as the reference geographic origin. The interpretation of these findings remains virtually unchanged as long as we adapt the usual formulation of the “all else remaining equal” argument. The regressions presented here can be used to measure the effect of the migration generation in taking into account the structure effects linked to region of origin, and the reverse.
How far in the past in the generational sense: does the family’s migration date from the grandparents’ time, or the parents’, or did the young respondent himself or herself immigrate?
These results are significant at the 5% threshold. In what follows, I limit commentary to differences significant at the 10% threshold.
The surplus ambition of immigrants’ children brought to light by earlier studies (Vallet 1996; Caille 2007) is not disqualified, however. Opting for an awkward but rigorous formulation, we can say that the data do not allow for rejecting the hypothesis that immigrants’ children have the same educational aspirations as the majority group.
Studies of socioeconomic situation usually focus on one of the two categories; either immigrants (Safi 2007) or immigrants’ children (Aeberhardt et al. 2010; Meurs and Pailhé 2010). This explains why it is difficult to support this hypothesis in any detail.
The odds ratios for other regions, all non-significant, were associated with extremely wide confidence intervals, making it difficult to read the figure.
[“Second schooling explosion” refers to the period from 1985 to 1995 when the number of lycéens or upper-secondary students passing the baccalauréat national high school leaving exam more than doubled in response to the policy of then Education Minister Chevènement. The first “explosion” was the massive rise in middle school students after the government instituted universal lower secondary school.—Trans.]