Stop ‘brain waste’ by putting college-educated immigrants to work
Research and Evaluation

Stop ‘brain waste’ by putting college-educated immigrants to work

Cab driver in a covid mask.

When a foreign-trained physician is forced to drive a cab to make ends meet, it’s called “brain waste.” A new report by the Migration Policy Institute found high numbers of underemployed college-educated immigrants in the U.S. – with devastating costs to those workers and our nation.

The report, supported by Lumina Foundation, says that 21 percent of college-educated immigrants in the United States, or 2 million people, are either unemployed or working in low-level jobs. Their lost wages are estimated at nearly $40 billion annually and as a result, governments are losing $10 billion annually in taxes.

An even greater cost can’t be quantified in dollars. Because they’re unable to fully use their expertise and skills, immigrants are struggling to survive while our nation is deprived of their talents.

This issue came into sharp focus during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the crisis worsened, states desperate for health care workers reduced licensing barriers so they could tap foreign-trained experts. While the results were mixed, these efforts brought the issue to light. Now, President Biden’s immigration reform bill calls for a study of factors that cause brain waste and limit job opportunities.

Urgent national priority

Helping immigrants succeed is not just a nice gesture, it’s an urgent, national priority. As the U.S. faces an estimated shortfall of 8 million workers between now and 2027 amid declining birth rates and an aging workforce, immigrants are a primary source of future U.S. labor force growth.

And because many underemployed people are racial or ethnic minorities, helping them build better careers and lives will reduce racial disparities and achievement gaps. This is both a moral and economic imperative. And it’s the heart of our mission and our work at Lumina Foundation.

The MPI report offers valuable data and insights – and opportunities for reform:

  • In 2019, underemployment among foreign-trained immigrants was 21 percent versus 16 percent for U.S.-born college graduates. This trend of higher brain waste among college-educated immigrants held true across 40 states – even those with fast-growing economies such as Nevada and Utah.
  • College-educated Black, Hispanic, and Latino workers are far more likely to be underemployed than white graduates. The odds of underemployment for Black immigrants were 54 percent higher than their white counterparts. For Hispanic and Latino workers, they were 40 percent higher.
  • In addition to race and ethnicity, English proficiency and legal status are strong predictors of brain waste. About 55 percent of college-educated immigrants with very low English proficiency were underemployed in 2019, compared to 33 percent of those who speak English well.
  • Immigrants with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and health are more likely to have good jobs. Even so, immigrants with health-related degrees were almost twice as likely to be underemployed as U.S.-born workers. Even during COVID-19, these job seekers were overlooked.

Meaningful work

These findings point to opportunities for educators, employers, and policy experts to help immigrants integrate more easily into their new homeland. For instance:

Highly skilled, underemployed immigrants who speak English but are not fluent may need only modest “topping-off” classes or mentoring to become fully productive in the labor force.

And given that Black and Hispanic and Latino workers struggle the most with brain waste, we need anti-discrimination policies that clear the way for good jobs with licensing bodies and employers.

Finally, we need to put immigrants’ health care skills to work. The newly passed $1.9 trillion stimulus legislation will fund expanding that workforce. Immigrants with health-related degrees and training – who also bring critical cultural and language skills – represent a huge, untapped pool of workers.

It’s up to us to stop this brain waste. We must build better, more inclusive pathways for immigrants to keep learning, do meaningful work, and contribute to a stronger nation. It’s time to get those internationally trained brain surgeons back where they belong – helping patients.


Another Migration Policy Institute report on immigrants’ untapped potential looks at a much different population – those who didn’t earn a college degree or credential after high school. In California alone, 58 percent of adults who lack a degree or credential are immigrants or children of immigrants. Nationwide, about 30 million of our 58 million immigrants have no post-high school credentials. A bright spot is this: those with certifications or licenses – such as barbers and practical nurses – tend to have good jobs that pay more. Licenses are one clear path to improved opportunities for immigrants.


Courtney Brown, Ph.D., is vice president of impact and planning at Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation that works for racial equity and justice as it helps all Americans learn beyond high school. Brown oversees Lumina’s strategic planning, impact, and effectiveness, and also leads international engagement.

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