Trends in immigration and differences in birth rates among racial/ethnic groups are profoundly altering the demographic makeup of the U.S. As the economist Ronald Ferguson has predicted, "A few decades from now there will be no racial majority group in the United States. All of us, including whites, will be minorities because each of our groups will represent less than half the population." It is in everyone's interest, therefore, to narrow evident achievement gaps between racial/ethnic groups in the U.S. Only by doing so, Ferguson advises, will we "arrive at mid-century with adults and children from every background feeling they have as much access to opportunity as anybody else does and as much reason to play the game with the expectation that if they work hard they will be successful."51

By 2030, Hispanics are projected to account for nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population, and non-Hispanic African-Americans nearly 14 percent. The Asian-American population is expected to increase from 5 to 7 percent.52 It is therefore critical that as a nation we have a better understanding of the skill levels of these groups at all age levels, as well as the challenges they face to acquiring better skills. In addition, having a clearer view of how well—or how poorly—different segments of the population perform on skills assessments will allow us to identify more accurately the scope of the challenges we face.

Across many of the participating PIAAC countries, immigrants form a large and growing percentage of the total adult population. Some might assume that the foreign born, a large number of whom have lower literacy skills than the native-born population and take PIAAC in the language of their host countries, are driving the poor performance of the U.S. in international skills surveys. The PIAAC data shed light on this complex issue. The focus in this section is on how nativity affects the performance of U.S. millennials and whether critical factors such as education and socioeconomic status mitigate the impact of nativity.

In almost all countries with a sample size large enough to compute scores for both groups, native-born millennials scored higher than their foreign-born peers (table 3). The score gap between these groups, however, varied among countries.53 The countries with a relatively large gap in the scores between native- and foreign-born millennials (ranging from 38 points in Austria to 62 points in Sweden) were among some of the top-performing countries overall in numeracy: Finland, Flanders (Belgium), Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, and Norway. The extent of the gap between the scores of native- and foreign-born millennials was not proportionally related to the size of the foreign-born population in a particular country. For example, Canada and Australia, countries with a large percentage of foreign born in the population, had relatively small gaps compared to those of other countries and, in particular, the gaps between the scores of the native and foreign born in the U.S.

The conjecture that the performance of the foreign born in the U.S. accounts for the weak comparative showing of U.S. millennials is not supported by the data. The performance of native-born U.S. millennials, when compared to the performance of native-born millennials from other OECD countries, parallels the relatively poor performance of all U.S. millennials. Native-born U.S. millennials did not perform higher in numeracy than their peers in any other country. Trend data on the performance of native and foreign-born young adults reveal, in fact, that U.S. native-born young adults carry much of the responsibility for the decline in overall scores in numeracy that were discussed at the onset of this report. Figure 11 shows that the scores for native-born millennials declined 12 points from 2003 (as did the scores for foreign-born millennials, though the differences for foreign born from 2003 to 2012 were not statistically significant).

Native-born millennials in the U.S. performed poorly compared to their counterparts even when accounting for levels of educational attainment. Across all three levels of educational attainment, native-born U.S. millennials did not score higher than any of their international peers (table 4 and table C-6). At the lowest two levels of educational attainment, native-born U.S. millennials scored lower than their peers in all countries except in two instances: They scored similarly to their peers in England/Northern Ireland (UK) and the Slovak Republic with less than a high school credential. At the highest level of educational attainment (above high school), native-born U.S. millennials scored comparably to their peers in five other countries. (Note: For this analysis, we removed 16- to 19-year-olds from the calculation so that this youngest group would not skew the data on percentages of those without a high school credential and scores for this lowest level of education.)

Similarly, across socioeconomic categories (as measured by parental education), native-born U.S. millennials maintained their poor international standing vis-à-vis the native born of other countries (table 5 and table C-7). U.S. native-born millennials did not score higher than their peers across any of the parental education levels. The percentage of native-born U.S. millennials (50%) whose parents had a socioeconomic advantage (e.g., those with at least one parent having obtained a tertiary education) was larger than that of native-born millennials in 14 other countries.54 Yet this relatively advantaged group had a lower skill level than their peers internationally.

The nuances of how our immigrant population is performing on these skills assessments, and the relationship of this performance to language acquisition, country of origin, educational attainment, and time of migration are all topics worthy of greater scrutiny. Nonetheless, the PIAAC data clearly suggest that skills deficits are evident across the native and foreign-born population of U.S. millennials. Moreover, our native-born millennials are not outperforming their peers internationally.

As the next section will show, the economic and educational standing of more disadvantaged segments of the U.S. population, including some of the foreign born, reveal complex interactions between elements of race/ethnicity and nativity in the U.S. that call for a nuanced policy response.

51 Ronald F. Ferguson, "Professional Community and Closing the Student Achievement Gap." Paper presented at Advocating for What's Right: A One-Day NEA Symposium on Critical Issues for Educators, Washington, DC, 2004,

52 U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, "Projections of the Population by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin for the United States: 2015 to 2060, 2012 National Population Projections: Summary Tables, Table 4, (release date: December 2012).

53 OECD, OECD Skills Outlook 2013.

54 Canada had the largest percentage (57%) of native-born millennials with at least one parent obtaining a tertiary degree.