Skilled Immigrants and the Recognition of Foreign Credentials in the United States

The United States, as a country built by immigrants, has an immigration policy that would be considered more welcoming than that of most developed nations. According to the Migration Policy Institute [1] (MPI), there are currently two million immigrants entering the country annually, of which more than half arrive as documented permanent residents. However, the country is doing a poor job integrating these immigrants into the labor force. The MPI reports [2] that more than 1.3 million college-educated immigrants are unemployed or working in unskilled jobs because they are unable to make full use of their academic and professional credentials.

Approximately three-fourths of the documented immigrants arriving in the United States do so under family reunification laws, meaning their academic and labor-market skills are not taken into consideration with respect to entry requirements. In other major immigrant-receiving countries, such as Canada and Australia, arrivals are selected under points systems designed to encourage the recruitment of skilled workers who might help fill gaps in domestic labor markets. In these recipient nations, governments have instituted aggressive labor market integration initiatives, aided by centralized regulatory and advisory bodies, aimed at reducing what the MPI describes as “brain waste.” By contrast, U.S. policy toward the integration of skilled and well-qualified immigrants remains fragmented and modest in scope. This “laissez-faire” and fragmented approach has contributed to the underutilization of skilled immigrant workers.

Skilled Immigrants in the United States

According to a 2009 report [3] by the Bureau of Labor Statistics [4] (BLS), there were 21.8 million foreign-born workers aged 25 or older in the civilian labor force in 2008, accounting for 16.1 percent of the total U.S. workforce. The report shows that the highest concentration of these workers is employed in management, professional and related occupations (28.2%), followed by those working in service occupations (23.2%).

The data reflects a pattern where immigrant workers are concentrated at the two poles of the occupational hierarchy (low-skilled or high-skilled jobs) with many university-educated workers being underemployed in low-skilled jobs, especially when compared to native-born workers.

Educational attainment: According to the BLS, there were 6.9 million immigrants with a bachelor’s degree or higher in the United States in 2008. This group of skilled immigrants constitutes almost one-third (31.7%) of the entire immigrant population – compared to 28 percent in 2000 – while those with less than a high school diploma constituted 26.4 percent of the immigrant labor force in 2008.

The educational attainment data essentially mirrors the occupational data: immigrant populations are concentrated at the poles: a large number having at least a bachelor degree or no high school diploma at all.

Unemployment: BLS data show that skilled immigrant workers are more likely to be unemployed than their native-born counterparts, while unemployment rates for the two populations are much closer at the unskilled level. This suggests that the impact of an advanced education in the labor markets is less significant for foreign-born workers than it is for native-born workers.

Based on the assumption that most immigrants are educated abroad, the two most common explanations for this discrepancy are, 1) that foreign academic credentials in the United States are either undervalued, not fairly evaluated, or too difficult to assess, and 2) knowledge and use of foreign credential evaluation services is limited among employers and immigrant job-seekers.

Educational attainment of 22 Million Immigrant Workers in the U.S.

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Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2009). Foreign-Born Workers: Labor Force Characteristics in 2008.

The Labor Force Characteristics of Foreign- and Native-Born Workers in 2008
Foreign-Born Native-Born
Total (x1000) Unemployed (x1000) Unemployment Rate Total (x1000) Unemployed (x1000) Unemployment Rate
25+ Years Old Workers 21,852 1,171 5.4 110,403 4,923 4.5
High- skilled1 [6] 6,931 226 3.3 38,177 932 2.4
Semi- skilled2 [7] 3,648 190 5.2 33,070 1,488 4.5
Unskilled3 [8] 11,273 755 6.7 39,155 2,503 6.4

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2009). Foreign-Born Workers: Labor Force Characteristics in 2008.

1. [9] High-skilled worker refers to individual who has bachelor’s, master’s, professional, or doctoral degree.
2. [10] Semi-skilled worker refers to individual who has some college education or associate degree.
3. [11] Unskilled worker refers to individual who has high school education or less.

Foreign degree vs. U.S. degree: In a recent study on workforce underutilization, the MPI found that in 2006 immigrants with a U.S. degree were more likely to be employed than their peers with foreign degrees, despite the fact that foreign-educated immigrants were significantly more likely to hold advanced degrees (doctorates or professional qualifications) than immigrants who completed their education in the United States.

Underutilization of the Immigrant Workforce

As noted above, many immigrants in the United States arrive with impressive resumes. However, their education and training are often overlooked in the job market. The MPI estimates [12] that more than 1.3 million college-educated immigrants are unemployed or underemployed, and identifies four key contributing factors to workforce underutilization:

Understanding Foreign Credentials in the Modern Knowledge Economy

As education-attainment levels rise in the modern economy, there is an increasing employer emphasis on the need for well-trained and well-educated employees. For job-seeking immigrants with academic credentials earned outside the United States it is therefore vital that they receive accurate, trusted and easily understood evaluations of their prior education.

Considering current skill shortages in fields such as engineering and health care, the proper recognition of immigrant skills and credentials is also of vital importance to the U.S. economy. With an improved focus on how credentials and skills evaluations are conducted and recognized, sectors and employers with significant labor shortages could begin to address those shortages by focusing on the many highly qualified immigrants who have come to the United States with foreign academic credentials, confident that their education and training meet domestic standards.

A Brief History of Foreign Credential Recognition (FCR) in the United States

In the early days of credential evaluation, following the end of the First World War, the U.S. government took direct responsibility for credential evaluations through the Foreign Credential Evaluation Service, which operated under the aegis of the former Office of Education. By 1967, the agency had conducted just 14,000 evaluations and in 1973 the service was discontinued altogether. The work of evaluating foreign academic credentials was delegated to the private sector, and today credential evaluations are performed mainly by colleges and universities and by independent private services.

There is no single authority governing the recognition of foreign qualifications in the United States. Instead, there are generally considered to be three major actors in credential recognition: Institutions of higher education, employers, and state boards of professional licensing. Some of these authorities conduct their own in-house evaluations, while many outsource to specialized credential evaluation agencies.

For employment purposes, specific regulations on the recognition of foreign credentials vary by profession. In regulated professions such as nursing, architecture and social work, the authority to recognize foreign qualifications and issue professional licenses typically rests with state boards. In all other fields, the recognition of foreign qualifications typically rests with employers. Regulations by state vary, with each operating its own system and each state licensing board setting different credential-recognition standards.

The Evaluation of Foreign Credentials

Credential evaluation services, which undertake the bulk of foreign education and skills assessments, are independent organizations that perform analyses of non-U.S. academic credentials and issue recommendations as to how a particular credential compares to a similar credential or set of credentials in the U.S. education system. There are many credential evaluation services serving various U.S. market niches.

Many independent credential evaluation services belong to the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services [13] (NACES), which was established in 1987 in response to a lack of regulation and government standards. Organizations are invited to join the industry group after successfully completing a comprehensive review process.

Most state licensing agencies or their national bodies designate specific evaluation services for purposes of credential evaluation, although some professional boards conduct in-house evaluations as part of the licensing process.

One of the most important and time-consuming aspects of credential evaluation is the verification of documents and diplomas for authenticity (Please click here [14] for more on WES verification procedures). As the field of credential evaluations is unregulated, and the work of verifying documents burdensome, this key aspect of the process is conducted with different standards of rigor. However, when conducted according to strict procedures, verification can greatly strengthen immigrants’ prospects when applying for jobs, education, or licensing. Strict verification procedures increase the confidence of employers, schools and licensing boards in the veracity of foreign credential evaluations. In addition, strict verification procedures help ensure that fraudulent documents or documents issued by diploma mills are exposed as such and disregarded.

Learning from Canada’s Experiences with Credential Recognition

In recent years, Canada has been proactive in trying to better recognize the qualifications of foreign-educated immigrants, and might be seen as a developing model for U.S. authorities. Foreign credential recognition has become an area of particular importance for Canadian authorities because of the emphasis they have placed on attracting well-educated migrants to help bridge shortages in the domestic labor force.

In 2007, the Foreign Credential Referral Office [15] (FCRO) was launched by Citizenship and Immigration Canada [16] to better guide immigrants through the credential recognition process. While it is a federal agency, the FCRO works with provincial and territorial governments and other stakeholders to improve the coordination of foreign credential recognition.

Provincial governments have also set their own standards. In 2006, Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, passed an act designed to help “ensure that regulated professions and individuals applying for registration by regulated professions are governed by registration practices that are transparent, objective, impartial and fair.” The legislation also includes the establishment of an Office of Fairness Commissioner [17] (OFC) to assess and monitor the registration and regulation process of foreign-educated professionals and the compliance of regulators with the Act. The OFC has been used as a model in Canada, and other provinces have created similar government entities.

In addition to government-sponsored programs, there have also been many non-governmental initiatives designed to guide immigrants on how to fulfill their educational deficiencies for licensing or employment purposes, offering internship programs to help immigrants receive Canadian work experience. Another important part of the process has been the engagement of employers in training programs designed to educate them on the recognition of foreign education and qualifications.

More recently, Canadian ministers agreed to further prioritize the importance of the assessment and recognition of foreign qualifications by giving the Forum of Labor Market Ministers [18] the task of developing a pan-Canadian framework and implementation plan for foreign qualification recognition. Under the Pan-Canadian Framework for the Assessment and Recognition of Foreign Qualifications [19], which was finalized in December 2009, foreign-trained and educated workers who submit an application to be licensed or registered to work in certain fields will be advised within one year whether their qualifications will be recognized. If not, candidates will pursue alternative pathways such as skills upgrading or employment in related occupations. Initially, the framework will cover only eight occupations and be expanded gradually.

Recent U.S. Policy Trends in Foreign Credential Recognition

Five U.S. state governors (IL, MD, MA, NJ, WA) have signed executive orders to address the needs of immigrant communities. As a first step, each governor has ordered the creation of an advisory commission or council to conduct research into the needs of their state’s immigrant populations and to develop recommendations to improve immigrant integration in areas related to citizenship, health care, education, and workforce development.

So far, commissions in four states (IL, MA, MD, and NJ) have published comprehensive policy recommendations, and each of them specifically addressed the issue of foreign credential recognition. While their recommendations in this area varied somewhat, they have generally agreed on the following:


The data suggest that highly educated immigrants with foreign academic credentials are less likely to find employment commensurate with their training than foreign-born immigrants with U.S.-earned credentials. Policies designed to improve the recognition of foreign credentials, and the confidence of employers in those credentials, are central to better integrating skilled immigrants into the U.S. economy and workforce.

Policies that enhance the transferability of foreign academic credentials and their recognition in the United States will lead to the better integration of immigrants into the U.S. workforce and maximize their economic contributions to the U.S. economy. In addition, many of these well-qualified immigrants are trained in fields where there are significant labor shortages, such as health care, science and technology, and engineering.

While the immigrant clients who have their credentials evaluated by WES are not necessarily representative of the broader skilled-immigrant population in the United States, these concluding charts illustrate the levels and fields of study that WES’s immigrant clients hold.

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