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Useful and Popular Degrees for Immigrants

Today, the typical immigrant's entry into America might not be the thrilling glimpse of the Statue of Liberty from the deck of a ship steaming into New York Harbor; those coming to our country now often arrive by car or plane with little ceremony. Although the mode of arrival may have changed, the overall immigrant experience has not--newcomers still face daunting challenges. Traditionally, the work many immigrants first find is often physically demanding and low-paying; their job prospects are limited by a number of factors, such as lack of English language skills. American employers tend to prefer diplomas and degrees earned at U.S. schools, so even the 28 percent of immigrants who come to the U.S. with a college education are likely to be underemployed here. Therefore, getting a certificate or degree is a top priority for recent immigrants looking to achieve the prosperity of the American dream. The certificates and degrees below are some of the best options available if you're an immigrant looking to move into a good job with benefits like health insurance.

The 5 best degrees for immigrants

ESL vocational certificate. According to the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education (CCCIE), immigrants make up one-quarter of the 6.5 million undergraduates enrolled in community colleges nationwide. So it's not surprising that English as a Second Language (ESL) programs are the fastest-growing programs at these schools. Immigrants who do not have a high school diploma but speak English well might consider Vocational ESL programs, which lead to certificates qualifying you for in-demand jobs like home health aide. Home health aides provide housekeeping and basic health care for the disabled or ill. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that job prospects for this occupation are excellent, and the 2009 median annual salary was nearly $20,500.

Licensed practical nurse (LPN) certificate. A 2010 Migration Policy Institute (MPI) paper reveals that between 1990 and 2006, job growth for immigrants was 132 percent in the health care sector. The BLS predicts continued growth between 2008 and 2018 in nearly every health care occupation and 21 percent growth alone for LPNs. One-year LPN training programs are offered by many community colleges, and prepare you to assist doctors and nurses with patient care, often in settings like nursing homes. The BLS reports the 2009 median annual wage for LPNs was approximately $39,800.

Bachelor's degree in hospitality/hotel management. At 134 percent, employment growth between 1990 and 2006 for immigrants in the hospitality sector was even faster than in health care. Though the MPI paper specifies that the majority of hospitality jobs were in occupations like cashier, housekeeper or cook, more than one-fifth of supervisory and managerial jobs were held by immigrants. Especially if you start out in an entry-level hospitality job and have strong English skills, getting your bachelor's degree in this field is a great way to land a higher-paying job with benefits. According to the BLS, the 2009 median annual wage for lodging managers was $46,300.

Engineering/computer science degree. If you're looking to improve your quality of life quickly through education, these degrees are the best bets. CNNMoney.com reports that in 2009, the five college majors with the highest earning potential right out of school were all engineering-related. Average starting salary for a petroleum engineer was over $83,000. These degree programs are both very competitive and very popular among immigrants. According to a 2010 American Academy of Political and Social Science (AAPSS) study, at the University of Texas-Austin and Texas Tech, science, engineering and math are the favored majors among all immigrant groups except Hispanic. Graduates go on to have successful careers: a joint UC-Berkeley and Duke University study found that 25.3 percent of engineering/tech company start-ups between 1995 and 2005 were founded or co-founded by an immigrant.

Social science degree. Social science degrees, such as anthropology, sociology and economics, were the most popular among the Hispanic students at the Texas schools studied by the AAPSS. These degrees are a great choice since they often allow students to draw on their immigrant experiences and move into careers that help the community. The Latin America News Dispatch recently reported on a number of Hispanic students in California who have done or hope to do just that, including one who has a dual degree in Sociology and Chicano and Latino Studies, and another who graduated from UCLA and went on to work for the school's Downtown Labor Center. In this way, these immigrants have not only achieved their own goals, but are enabling others to improve their lives, as well.

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